Law as a writer’s vocation

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By Lee Rynski ’23

My first impression of legal writing—after overcoming the cold dread that each piece inspired, was that its formulaic approach, strict and unyielding, left no room for improvisation or creativity. Judicial opinions, memoranda, and court documents are bound by time-tested and sometimes archaic formats. Some courts have yet to adopt modern standard conventions, such as including a single space between sentences and continue to use two. I thought surely, in this field, a writer can never truly flourish. My time spent with the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reminded me that I have much to learn.

This past summer, I interned at the chambers of The Honorable Julio Fuentes, a senior judge sitting on the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. My participation in the Court’s program was made possible by the donors of the Dean’s Judicial Summer Fellowship, for which I am deeply grateful. Without their support, through the University at Buffalo School of Law Summer Public Interest Funding & Fellowship Program, I would have needed to seek additional employment to support myself. Instead, I was able to join an amazing team and deepen my understanding of the law and federal court system through various presentations and assignments.

Along with the other interns, I was responsible for summarizing the Court’s newly decided precedential opinions. These reviews kept the Judge appraised of the decisions of the circuit, give a sense of developing precedent, the history of the case, and provide recommendations for re-argument. The end goal: distill lengthy opinions into a single page without compromising the analyses, facts, or underlying law.

Throughout my academic and professional careers, I’ve written many pieces, each with its own style. While studying philosophy as an undergraduate, I would compose arguments based on the theoretical, sometimes grounded more in creativity than in reality. In business, as a liaison, I would draft presentations, e-mails, and technical documentation. Naturally, those works demanded adherence to their conventions, though none so strict as the field of law. I was to cross a finish line; the course that I plotted was left to my own making. This time, knowing my task would see me marching to the beat of the Court’s drum, I set about on my first assignment.

I met briefly with the assigning clerk and perused the few samples she had provided. I printed them out, deconstructed them, and fashioned an outline. I read the associated opinion, some forty pages in length, and correlated the relevant information with the appropriate sections of my outline. I began to write. A few hours later, I saved my progress and went on a walk. When I returned, I faced my next hurdle: turning five pages into one.

Legal writing is an art in and of itself. Though it is most evident within the meticulous crafting of an argument, the true artisanship is so innocuous that a reader never notices it at all. That is the objective. I am speaking, of course, of the process of completing an edit. This selective process by which a writer refines a crude article into a persuasive or objective masterpiece, whose logic demands a single conclusion, is unachievable through the rote application of grammatical principles. Instead, the writer must employ their creative energies.

I sat at my desk and reviewed each section. I substituted words, deleted sentences, I cut paragraphs. I decided that facts were superfluous. I noticed that my expression of the governing law was needlessly complex. I introduced more transitions and altered my pacing. I added footnotes and relegated content to that domain, condemning it to inconspicuousness. When all was said and done, I submitted one and a half pages. As I said in the beginning, I still have a lot to learn.

Law is a writer’s vocation. Make no mistake, there is no room for the idiom, or cliché, or hyperbole, or any of the whimsical literary devices that authors traditionally adore. Our work lies in what the reader does not see; creativity expressed in a clandestine and iterative process.

Name: Lee Rynski ‘23

Name of Fellowship: Dean’s Judicial Summer Fellowship

Placement: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, The Honorable Julio M. Fuentes

Location: Newark, NJ

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “Legal writing is an art in and of itself. Though it is most evident within the meticulous crafting of an argument, the true artisanship is so innocuous that a reader never notices it at all.”