March 16, 2010
How to Win a Legal Writing Competition in 3 Surprisingly Easy Steps
I have been an organizer and grader for a number of writing competitions over the years. Collectively, I've reviewed dozens of writing competition submissions, some good, most not so good. This post provides you with a three-step protocol for legal writing competition success. You might be surprised that it is easier to win than you think.
Step 1: Research competitions
Your first step is to learn about the competitions. It can be hard to get credible information about writing competitions because they change their rules or shut down entirely without much notice. My mom, her researcher and I have worked together to compile the legal writing competitions into a book, “How to Pay for Your Law Degree.” Most law schools have a copy on campus which you can review for free (usually in the law library, but sometimes in the financial aid or career placement offices). Or, if you want, you can order your own copy for about $30 at Amazon.
You should scan the book to get a sense of what writing competitions exist, the paper topics that might fulfill some competitions, typical deadlines and eligibility requirements.
Step 2: Write a Paper
Armed with some knowledge of writing competition requirements, your next step is to write a paper that can compete.
To help you write your paper, if you don’t already own it, you should get Prof. Eugene Volokh’s book Academic Legal Writing: Law Review Articles, Student Notes, Seminar Papers, and Getting on Law Review. This book helps you navigate every step in the paper-writing process.
The book will answer most of your questions, but let me add a little advice about writing a paper that can win writing competitions. From my perspective, the key to winning is picking a good topic. This may be obvious, but students often focus more effort on conforming to the Bluebook and the style manuals; those are helpful, but they will not determine your success in a writing competition. Instead, pick a good topic and execute it competently, and you position yourself well for victory. In contrast, pick a poor topic, and even if you execute it brilliantly with the finest footnotes and no style errors, you still aren't competitive.
Regarding topics, I recommend that you start thinking about topics early. By doing so, you can start collecting material and thinking about the topic in your spare mental cycles rather than rushing around at the last minute. Stated differently, it’s easier to write a good paper on deadline with a warm start than a cold one. Also, it is hard to write a good paper in a single semester. You might consider ways to work on your paper before and after a semester to make sure you have adequate time to refine your thoughts, develop your arguments and polish your paper.
As Volokh discusses in his book, students routinely make some errors selecting topics that reduce or eliminate their chances of winning a writing competition. Some examples:
* case notes. Personally, I think blogs have mooted student-written case notes. It is very, very rare that a student case note can add something to the collective understanding of a case that the blogosphere didn’t already say in the first week following the case. But even if you disagree with me about that, case notes have almost no shot of winning a writing competition because they are too topically narrow and unambitious compared to other papers.
* topics driven by current events. Virtually every time I grade a writing competition, I see papers on a topic that briefly got a lot of press coverage about 12-18 months beforehand, but that no one is still discussing any more. These papers also have almost no chance of winning.
* topics on pending legislation or cases on appeal. Occasionally these papers are perfectly timed, but usually something happens between the time the student selects the topic and the writing competition evaluation—such as the legislation dies or gets radically revamped, or the case settles or the new opinion hasn’t issued yet but is imminent. Those intervening developments usually undercut the paper's most interesting facets.
* me-too topics. Students tend to gravitate towards overgrazed topics where it is hard to find something unique to say. There are certain topics that students just can’t resist (in my field, they include online music/file-sharing and keyword advertising). As a grader, when I see the eighth entry on online file-sharing, an overwhelming sense of ennui sets in—either the paper better knock my socks off, or I’ve seen and heard it all and the paper looks derivative. In effect, student papers play a game of Scattergories against each other (a process I describe in more detail here). In particular, when two or more writing competition submissions are on the same general topic (don’t laugh—it happens frequently), almost invariably they both knock each other out because neither paper seems original. At best, the grader will compare the two papers against each other, and the lesser paper is doomed. So to avoid the pitfalls of grader ennui and scattergories, avoid the me-too topics.
* topics that are too hard. Occasionally students go the other direction and pick a topic that is too hard for students to successfully execute. I remember grading one paper that simultaneously undertook three really hard tasks: (1) a constitutional analysis, (2) analysis of an international treaty, and (3) a multi-country comparative analysis. Whew! I think most law professors with their resources and experience could not successfully execute this topic even if they worked on it for years, and a student writing his/her first academic paper had no chance of succeeding.
Whatever topic you select, make sure you love it. In effect, you marry your topic because you will typically spend several hundred hours working on it over the course of months or even years. Ideally, your topic will have something to do with your desired future practice. Your research can lay a foundation for your substantive knowledge in that area and signal your interests to future employers.
A final note about writing the paper: your paper competes based on its original analysis, not its recap of the prior literature. When I’m grading a paper, I skip over the paper’s recap of the law (unless I don’t know the area well) and look for the paper’s unique insights into the issue. If that’s only one paragraph in the conclusion, the paper has zero chance of winning.
Step 3: Apply!
Winning a writing competition is a big deal. Usually you win cash, which is always nice. Sometimes you also get guaranteed publication for your article. With some competitions, you get a free trip to an awards presentation ceremony. For example, the Entertainment Law Initiative Writing Competition flies out the winner and the honorable mentions to attend the GRAMMY awards ceremony and related parties.
A writing competition victory also has incalculable benefits for your resume. It represents external validation of your writing skills. As you know, employers value writing skills highly, so a win could significantly improve your job prospects.
So there are ample reasons to compete. Yet, amazingly, fewer students do so than you might think. I have been involved with several writing competitions where we have received a shockingly low number of submissions. It is not atypical for lesser-known or niche competitions to have less than 2 submissions for every prize available.
In some cases, the odds are even more favorable. For example, for the past 3 years I have run ASCAP’s Nathan Burkan copyright-themed writing competition at SCU. ASCAP gives us the right to designate a winner ($600) and runner up ($250) at SCU; the winner then competes nationally for more money. Each of the past 3 years, we have gotten only one submission for the local SCU competition. In other words, we have had $250 and an honorific just waiting for someone to apply and we couldn’t give it away. As the marketing slogan goes, “you can’t win if you don’t play.”
Now, some writing competitions do have a lot of submissions, making the odds of success much lower. But if you do your research, you can find competitions that other students may have overlooked; and if you write a competent paper on a good topic, your paper will stand out and compete well even in popular contests.
[Note: some of the links are Amazon Affiliates links]
March 10, 2010
Disturbingly Humorous MySpace Posts Used as Impeaching Evidence in Spousal Abuse Case--Embry v. State
Embry v. State, 2010 WL 768755 (Ind. App. Ct. March 8, 2010)
I've blogged before about the use of postings to MySpace or other social networking sites as a new source of impeaching evidence. In this case, an ex-husband was accused of beating his ex-wife. He unsuccessfully argued self-defense. The court quotes the following testimony about the wife's attitudes towards her husband:
"On cross-examination, the defense questioned her about a number of derogatory statements she had posted about Embry on her MySpace blog prior to the incident in question:
BY [DEFENSE]: ... Prior to Au-April 22nd, 2008 had you ever expressed or communicated in any way that you wanted your ex to die a slow painful death?
A I believe you're referring to my “My Space” ...
Q I'm not-I-no, I'm not referring to anything. I'm just asking you a simple question: if you'd ever expressed or communicated in any way that you wanted your ex-husband, Mr. Embry, to die a slow painful death?
A I see it right there on your desk.
A It's my “My Space” blog.
Q Okay, did you say it?
A I typed it.
Q Okay. But the answer is, did you say it? I mean is that your communication.
A I typed it.
Q Okay. And did you ever express um, or communicate in any way that you wanted to be present and dance the cha-cha around his slow painful death?
A It's all there in the blog.
Q Okay. The answer's a simple yes or no. You said it; you've communicated it some way, did you?
A If you want to put that blog there, I ...
Q I'm just asking you a simple question.
BY COURT: Ma‘am, will ya just answer the question yes or no?
A Yes, I did.
Q Did you ever refer to Mr. Embry or communicate in any way that he was a worthless bag of monkey shit?
Q Did you ever refer to him as dog piss?
Q Did you ever refer to him as a worm puke stale crusty moldy inhuman horrible human oxygen sucking moron?
Q Did you ever communicate the desire, that because he's older and more stupid than you, he will die way before you do?
A I believe I said please assure me that it was possible that he would pass before me."
The state's attorney redirects with this understated summary:
"BY [STATE]: Ms. Embry, is it fair-fair to say that you're not very fond of your former husband?
A No, I am not fond of him at all."
March 02, 2010
Life as an AALS Section Chair
In 2009, I had the privilege of serving as the chair of the AALS Law & Computers section. Doing so was quite an honor, and I was flattered to be asked.
Although I’m glad I had the experience, perhaps it’s not surprising that being a section chair is not as romantic as one initially imagines. This post provides a rare inside look into life as an AALS section chair.
What Does a Section Chair Do?
Some sections undertake projects throughout the year, like publishing a section newsletter. However, other sections’ only output for the year is a program at the section’s annual meeting. In these sections, a section chair has three main responsibilities:
1) Organize the program for the annual meeting, which also effectively necessitates attending that annual meeting (but chairs don’t get free admission or any red-carpet treatment).
2) Self-propagate (i.e., select successor leadership).
3) Deal with AALS bureaucracy, such as filling out numerous burdensome forms.
As you can see, this is not an especially demanding list of responsibilities. I probably spent 20-30 hours in 2009 performing my chair duties. I could have spent less.
There are few perks of being a section chair. I can only think of two. The annual meeting has a section officer’s breakfast that provides attendees a free continental breakfast; but this breakfast isn’t exactly free, as attendees have to listen to the AALS brass hype AALS. I also got the power to send emails to AALS’ new section email list. As you can see, being chair is not exactly a glamour gig.
Organizing the Annual Meeting Program
Because the annual meeting program is typically the chair’s main responsibility, let’s take a closer look at it. Each program slot is 105 minutes, of which AALS expects that 15 minutes will be devoted to a section business meeting. So the main opportunity/obligation of being section chair is putting on a 90 minute substantive program at the AALS annual meeting. AALS allocates $900/year to each section for all section expenses; often, that is spent solely on the annual meeting program.
To motivate section chairs to do a good job with their programs, AALS uses some carrots and sticks. The main stick is that if the section meeting does not consistently draw at least 40 people, after a couple of years, AALS can kibosh the section. Further, meeting times can affect attendance. Expected attendance at the Sunday 8:30 am program is going to be lower than a 10:30 am program on Thursday or Friday. And no section chair wants to be responsible for causing the section’s demise.
To improve the section meeting’s time slot, AALS offers various incentives. One incentive is for the section to give up its slot altogether for the year (which nets premium slotting for the next year) or combine its annual meeting slot with another section. Realistically, these options aren’t very attractive because the section chair may end up doing nothing during his/her entire tenure.
AALS also gives a better time slot if the section does a Call for Papers (CFP). If the section doesn’t use a CFP, section chairs typically choose a program topic and invites his/her friends to be on the panel—friends are more likely to say yes, so the chair saves time organizing the panel, and as a bonus the chair gets to hang out with these friends at the conference.
Needless to say, a chair inviting his/her friends creates a clubby/closed-door environment that does not favor newcomers. Further, friends may agree to speak only as a personal favor and not because they are truly excited about the speaking opportunity. As a result, their presentations may not be especially inspired. I believe this is a principal reason why AALS section presentations have gotten such a bad rap over the years.
A CFP solves a number of these problems. First, it opens the doors to newcomers. Second, people who submit their papers generally are excited about the opportunity. Third, because speakers write a paper in connection with their presentation instead of just winging it, the presentations may be higher quality and better prepared.
However, CFPs have other downsides. First, there may not be enough good submissions. We were lucky to get 4 quality submissions to our CFP, but success was not guaranteed. Second, CFPs require more work. It’s easy to send an email to a few friends. It’s harder to write the CFP, disseminate it, compile the submissions, have a committee review them, get the committee’s feedback and communicate the decisions to all of the submitters (including, necessarily, telling some eager folks “no thanks”). I am glad our section went with a CFP process this year, but I understand why many chairs don’t bother.
AALS also gives better times for pre-placing the papers presented at the section meeting. This also requires additional work and can be tricky if the papers aren’t available for students to review. The students either must be convinced the papers will be good, or they will delay confirmation until they see the actual papers (thereby precluding the extra credit AALS gives).
All told, AALS’ incentive system seeks to motivate the chair to do additional work but all of that work results in minimal payoffs—better timing for the section meeting, which reduces the odds of drawing insufficient attendance, which eventually might jeopardize the section’s status. There are other good reasons to do CFPs or pre-place papers, but the AALS incentives themselves typically are not enough to spur additional work from the chair.
The Challenges of Organizing a Good Panel at AALS
If we distill the section chair role into session organizer a/k/a event planner, we should recognize the institutional barriers to putting on a good program at AALS. First, AALS asks for a program topic in March or April for next January’s meeting, i.e., 9 months in advance, and after the chair has been in the role only a couple of months. It’s hard to put on a cutting edge program, at least in areas like Internet or IP law, with such a long lead-time.
Second, AALS gives the section an annual budget of $900, but then they also charge up to $800 for a projector to show PowerPoint slides. (In practice, they split this charge among all of the sections sharing the same room who use PPT, so our actual charge worked out to less than $200 this year). AALS also gives only limited conference fee waivers. In practice, this means the speaker pool is (a) up to one non-professor speaker whose travel gets covered up to $900 if all of the speakers forego PowerPoint, (b) local experts willing to pay the conference admission fee, and (c) speakers (including law professors intending to attend AALS anyway) willing to pay their entire way to speak (including travel and the conference fee). In contrast, at SCU (like most other law schools), we typically reimburse all speaker travel expenses for the academic events we sponsor. So AALS’ budget restrictions make it difficult to put together a first-rate speaker roster.
So, boiling the responsibilities to their most basic form, an AALS section chair’s main responsibility is to organize an event, but AALS gives the chair inferior tools to put together an event comparable to a standard law school event.
AALS’ form bylaws (which, I am guessing, every section has adopted verbatim) require the chair to constitute a nominating committee. My guess is that most chairs skip this step and, at most, consult their executive committee as a de facto nominating committee. This year, I actually put together a nominating committee and used it to suggest candidates and to screen the proposed slate that the incoming chair and I put together.
I’ll talk in a moment about the ideal characteristics of a section chair, but what criteria should be used to nominate the other officer positions and the section’s executive committee? For many sections, I believe the chair and incoming chair do most of the work and the other officer and executive committee positions are largely ceremonial. This was the case for our officers and executive committee this year. Given that, the incoming chair and I followed a few principles for nominating candidates:
* The positions can serve as a incubator for future section leaders. It’s a way of getting to know them better and to get them invested in the section.
* We tried to designate people who would tangibly benefit from being formally identified as community leaders. Emerging scholars approaching tenure are one example.
The incoming chair decided to be inclusive, so we ended up nominating a large executive committee of a dozen members. We hope this will provide a solid foundation of future section leaders.
Attributes of an Ideal Section Chair
For sections that do not undertake more complex projects like a section newsletter, the chair is mainly an event planner. Therefore, the main selection criterion for the chair should be his/her ability to organize a good annual meeting program.
From my perspective, the best section chairs would be people who can't easily put on their own programs at their home institutions. For example, in the Cyberlaw community, the directors of the major Law & Tech programs can easily sponsor events on their campus without having to navigate AALS’ bureaucracy or limited budget. Further, for those director-chairs, time spent planning an AALS event competes with time spent planning their own program’s events.
In contrast, some chair candidates might come from a school that normally would not organize events for the section’s community. A school might be in a remote geography or lack the budget to put on an event. These candidates might view the AALS chair position as their golden opportunity to put together an event of their design for our community.
Alternatively (or in addition), some event ideas could draw upon AALS’ strengths. I’m not exactly sure what an event like that would look like. However, it would be worth pursuing if someone envisioned an event that would be more successful because it's held at AALS.
In some sections, I believe AALS section leadership is viewed as a capstone professional experience, and therefore generally a professor pays dues for years (decades?) before becoming a viable candidate for a leadership role. In contrast, in the Internet law area, many long-time professors are too busy to want the chair’s role, but some relative newcomers would view the opportunity as exciting (and not as the last item on their overly long to-do list).
Personally, I don’t have a problem with an untenured chair if he or she understands the responsibilities and pitfalls. A section chair has a big hand in allocating speaker slots and designating future officers/executive committee members. Invariably, this power also means that the chair must say no to some people, potentially including tenured faculty members. Some untenured chairs might find this position uncomfortable; others would value the early leadership experience.
Finally, some chair candidates might have ideas of new section activities that go beyond the annual meeting program. Someone who could identify a new community resource to provide through AALS, and was willing to undertake that project, might be an especially compelling chair candidate.
To recap, then, my specifications for an ideal section chair are:
* don’t already have a center or institute where they put on similar events
* has an idea for a program that could be best done under AALS’ auspices (and despite AALS’ limitations as an event venue)
* is comparatively junior enough that they won't view the chair’s responsibilities as a nuisance that competes for their time
* has ideas about new initiatives for the section beyond the annual meeting program
If I could do it over again, I would ask prospective chair candidates to write a short blurb explaining what they would like to do with the section meeting and if they have any other initiative ideas.