Law students know that it is hard to get a C (or worse) on written work. Most law schools have something approximating a B curve and most grades are in this range. Most law professors don’t like giving law students low grades. However, some students work very hard to obtain low marks on writing assignments. I want to share their secrets with you so that you too can obtain a C (or maybe even a D!) on your next paper. If you want to avoid such a fate, the information below will also be particularly useful.
Nothing puts a professor in a bad state of mind quicker than seeing his or her name spelled wrong on the first page of the assignment. Try “Dodeck” or “Dodk” or one of my various nicknames like “Dodekian” or “Dodecanese” (the later is a group of Greek Islands I believe).
Spelling the professor’s name wrong is quite the feat, after all. It appears on every document and every web site associated with the course. The professor works hard to learn the names of 20, 40, or 60 students in his or her class. You only have to learn one name: the professor’s. So spelling his or her name wrong is quite a challenge.
If you are effectively able to do this, you will successfully communicate to the professor a cavalier attitude to your paper worthy of a poor grade. In fact, you will immediately put the professor in a “D”-stabilized state of mind and even if the rest of the paper is superb, you will force the professor to overcome this very negative first impression. Way to go!
2. Get the name of your textbook wrong
Since No. 1 is so challenging, you may have more success in getting the name of your textbook wrong. After all, you don’t actually see this person. Who is this “Hoeg” character anyway? Is his text Constitution Law of Canada, Constitutional Low of Canada or heck, why not Constitutional Law of Canadian? Who cares anyways? We all know that details don’t really matter in law. Try to compound this error by repeating it throughout your paper in multiple footnotes or even better within the text.
3. Don’t follow the rules
This is one of my favourites. Nothing gets my attention more than a student who completely disregards the rules that I set out in the syllabus or in the assignment and that I have probably repeated at least twice in class. I also teach public law and that whole rule of law thing. Why should the rules apply to every student in the class? You are special! Indeed you are, gunning for that C. You are well on your way.
4. Bury your thesis statement
Notice that I made this No. 4 and not No. 1 so that you had to work hard to find it. In order to get a low grade, the best place to bury your thesis statement is in the fourth sentence of a page-long paragraph on page 3 of a five-page assignment. I will have to work very hard to find your thesis there. With any luck, I won’t even notice that it is your thesis statement. Whatever you do, don’t put your thesis statement in the first paragraph or worst yet, as the first sentence. Effective lawyers know that the first line in a factum is “This case is about . . . .” Don’t be effective if you want to get a C.
5. Make me read a sentence three times to understand it
The tortuous nature of your sentence is inversely proportional to the grade to which you are likely to be attributed on your written work; to wit, it will be a low one. What the hell was that? I don’t know and often I feel the same way when I read a convoluted sentence in written work.
6. Regurgitate what I said in class or what’s in the text
Law school is different than undergrad. It is about analysis. If you want to remind your professor that you haven’t quite got that point, make sure to have as little analysis as possible in your written work and just summarize what was said in class or in your text.
7. Don’t proofread your wookie
Damn! I can’t believe spell check didn’t catch that one! I meant “work,” not “wookie.” Typos telegraph to the reader that you haven’t taken your work seriously so why should the professor? If employed successfully and strategically, typos can even drag down very strong substantive arguments. Good lack with thsi won.
8. The passive voice will be used as much as possible
In this paper herein before this honourable professor, it will be argued that the effectiveness of writing will be weakened by the employment of the passive voice. Wow! I impressed myself by how horrible that sentence is. Not a single active verb. You get the picture.
Law school is hard. Getting consistently poor marks on written work can be a real challenge. But if you employ most of the strategies above, I can virtually guarantee you that there’s a strong likelihood of your getting very poor marks on written work. Or you can avoid these traps and head on the road to becoming a strong legal writer.
Adam Dodek is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law (Common Law Section). He is the co-founder with professor Ellen Zweibel of the faculty’s Legal Writing Academy. He hates giving students Cs but some students outsmart him and he is left with no choice.