Keeping the Pace: Legal Writing vs Academic Writing

Back at the law firm, we had a “pace” for long-form research-based writing, like recommendation letters and legal briefs: one page per hour.  This was approximately how long producing these pages actually took, from the moment one of the paralegals dropped off the case file to the final edit of the finished draft.  A ten-page, single-spaced recommendation letter took about ten hours; a ten-page, double-spaced brief in support of a motion for summary judgment also took about ten hours.  On entering grad school, I assumed that academic papers would take about the same amount of time.

The sound you are now hearing is every academic in the country laughing at my naïveté.

In the past eleven days, I’ve produced about fifty pages of academic writing.  That’s “academic,” as in “not written for teaching, freelance client, blogging, or personal purposes,” and “writing,” as in “not research, outlining, or freewriting in an attempt to tag and track all my various thoughts.”

The writing alone has taken about sixty hours in the past eleven days.  In all, I’d estimate that my “pace” for academic writing has been about three hours per double-spaced page.

There are, of course, reasons for this that have nothing to do with my relative skill at legal and academic writing.  Academic writing is by nature harder than legal writing, for several reasons:

1.  The scope of the research is larger. 

Legal briefs have one set of facts that are based on a discrete set of sources (massive document review projects notwithstanding).  In daily practice, we see the same basic legal issues over and over, which makes the legal research move more quickly; by the time I left the firm, I had a desktop folder containing the twenty cases we cited most often.  Academic research is more far-flung, especially if we go for the “interdisciplinary” approach.

2.  The organization is looser.

Legal briefs have very specific organization rules: facts, legal issues, analysis.  They don’t mess around with introductions, and the conclusion is one sentence: “For the abovementioned reasons, [PARTY] respectfully requests that this Court [do the thing].”  Short of deciding on which order to make your arguments, you don’t have to do a lot of outlining or planning.  Academic papers offer much greater scope for organizational choice – which can be great for your argument but which also take time.

3.  There are (probably) several ways to look at the evidence.

Legal briefs are partisan by nature, even if you’re not actually a party to the case.  Sure, occasionally someone will write an amicus brief in support of neither party, but those are few and far between and are inevitably polemics on the author’s partisan point anyway.   But in academic writing, particularly in English, the evidence frequently points in several directions at once.  This is doubly true if your theoretical framework permits questioning not only of the arguments but of the language itself.  (Ask me about my work in deconstruction!)

4.  Who’s my audience, anyway? 

Lawyers know what judges want, and if we don’t, the judge tells us.  “Writing the best brief you can” is always about writing the best brief for this particular court.  Academic writing, on the other hand, has more than one judge.  Or it should; writing seminar papers that can’t make their way into a publication or into your thesis/dissertation even with substantial editing are a waste of everyone’s extraordinary effort.

This list overlooks, of course, the types of legal writing that are also academic writing, aka “law review articles.”  It’s been several years since I produced a seminar paper for a law school class, but those are nearly as time-consuming as academic works, especially if your legal-academic piece is interdisciplinary.