By Jess Clarke
When Carolina Law Professor Alexa Z. Chew began practicing law, she was asked to write letters to sweepstakes winners about their obligations and contractual terms of the prizes. She’d written a few types of legal documents in law school, but the letters were new to her.
“I was too scared to ask” how to write them, and when she mimicked the content and tone of similar letters on file at her office, “I’d turn them in and get them back, and they were all torn up” with edits in red, Chew says. “It took me a long time — and a lot of comments and feedback from the person I was working with — to figure that out…I didn’t have a system for it.” But she needed one badly. In fact, after years of teaching legal writing, she realized that all new legal writers need a system for writing legal documents that are new to them.
Now Chew is co-author and co-editor of a book series that teaches law students and lawyers how to create a system to write the diverse legal documents they will encounter in law school and practice. Chew edits the series, The Complete Series for Legal Writers, with former Carolina Law faculty member Katie Rose Guest Pryal ’03 — now a Carolina Law adjunct professor — and the series is published by Carolina Academic Press.
In 2020, both the second edition of the first book in the series, The Complete Legal Writer, and the second book in the series, The Complete Bar Writer, were published. Three more books are under contract: The Complete Pre-Law Writer, The Complete Legal Editor, and The Complete Legal Stylist.
“Ultimately what we want is for anyone who’s using these books to become a better legal writer,” Chew says. “There are lots of right ways to write any given document, and we want to foster all of those right ways by helping writers make deliberate choices at each stage of the writing process,” she continues. “The way we’re doing that is by teaching habitual, repeatable techniques that writers can apply to novel situations.”
The books highlight new strategies for legal writing and research that Chew and Pryal developed. Their “genre discovery approach” prepares legal writers to write any kind of legal document with a process that’s transferable among genres, so they’ll be ready to write unfamiliar kinds of documents. The books teach how to analyze genre samples, with questions to guide students. Document types included range from office memos and appellate briefs to demand letters and employer blogs.
“The idea is that by the time they finish their first-year legal writing curriculum, they have a system they can use to write every legal genre they’re asked to write…a process they can replicate for any new genre, even congratulatory sweepstakes letters filled with contractual language,” Chew says.
The authors’ “citation literacy” approach in the books explains how to read and write legal citations. “We teach students how to read citations first—before learning how to write them—and incorporate them in the prose, so when they write citations, they have a context for what is in them,” says Chew.
Guidance on giving and receiving feedback with peers, professors, and supervisors at work — typically lacking in similar textbooks — is a key part of the books. In The Complete Legal Writer, “The chapter that other professors ask me the most about is the peer feedback chapter,” she says.
In The Complete Legal Editor, “There will be a focus on how to give feedback — you need to know what the goal is and what your purpose is,” Chew says. “How do you spot problems, diagnose them and give the remedy, and how do you communicate that?” Chew believes this is a critical lawyering skill that can be taught and learned: “You don’t have to wing it.”
Readers aren’t the only ones enlightened by the book series. Chew has learned from her own textbooks.
“I’ve become such a better writer because of these books, and I feel that I’m a better teacher,” she says. “The things I couldn’t explain before, like the ‘flow’ of a document…I can now very confidently teach my students.”
Chew and Pryal were motivated to write the books partly to aid their own teaching. “It’s hard to use a textbook that doesn’t teach what you want it to,” notes Chew, who teaches in the Research, Reasoning, Writing and Advocacy Program.
She and other Carolina Law professors who teach legal writing use The Complete Legal Writer in their classes. Carolina Law faculty who teach classes on writing for the bar use The Complete Bar Writer.
The response to the books from students and professors has been positive. “Professors say students find the writing and the tone accessible without talking down to them. Students tell me that, too,” Chew says. “Honestly, those are my favorite comments because Katie and I both believe so strongly that legal writing should be accessible to everyone.”