Students in the first-year legal writing courses are right now handing in their first full length memos. Learning this new memo writing skill is usually a moment of some anxiety for students, as the analysis, form, and structure of a legal memo is quite different from other types of writing.
The most important word in the previous paragraph is the word skill. Legal writing is a skill, and as a skill, it can be developed through hours of deep practice, according to The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.
The Talent Code starts with the question of how and why some environments, whether they are formal coaching programs or even informal family dynamics, produce people with exceptional skill sets.
The answer lies with two achievable techniques: deep practice and hours of work.
When you engage in deep practice you slow down your approach to studying a skill set. “Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you smarter.” “Effortless performance” is not the right way to learn a skill.
The struggle to work at the edge of one’s knowledge and “reach” for the next level is when a person best learns a skill. “You have positioned yourself at a place of leverage where you can capture failure and turn it into skill. The trick is to choose a goal just beyond your present abilities; to target the struggle. Thrashing blindly doesn’t help. Reaching does.”
And when you reach for the next level in your abilities through deep practice, your brain produces more myelin, the sheathing covering your neurons. Myelin makes you smarter by speeding up your neuroprocessing and helping your brain to forge new connections to facilitate your ability to learn a skill set.
Coyle likens myelin production to creating more bandwidth. “Struggle is not optional—it’s neurologically required: in order to get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit suboptimally; you must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes; you must slowly teach your circuit.” Coyle gives this equation for success: deep practice x 10,000 hours=world-class skill.
I found the story of the Brontë family (of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre fame) instructive. The Talent Code recounts that the Brontës as children wrote all the time, but their writing was not by any means perfect. The writing was (no surprise) childish and full of spelling and punctuation errors. But this writing was important because it gave the Brontës the chance to learn from their mistakes and test out storylines and techniques. “They became great writers not in spite of the fact that they started out immature and imitative but because they were willing to spend vast amounts of time and energy being immature and imitative, building myelin in the confined, safe space of their little books.”
The Talent Code gives three techniques for deep practice. The first is to “chunk” your learning, to break your learning into smaller skill sets for mastery. The second is to repeat your practice, especially to repeat the learning at the point where you have to reach. The third is to develop a feeling for when you are in deep practice, “of reaching, falling short, and reaching again.”
So, what does that mean for studying legal writing and law in general? It means that you can achieve your goal of excellent legal writing when you repeatedly make mistakes in your drafts and correct them until you learn how to auto correct your writing. It means that the process of learning legal writing should force you to reach, even if you have found previous writing experiences to be easy. It also means that you are not either born to be good at legal writing or doomed to failure. You have can have faith that you will get it if you keep practicing and fine tuning your efforts, and you will become smarter in the process.