The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: presentation

Book review: Typography for Lawyers – Matthew Butterick

What is the ugly truth about why typography is so important for lawyers? :

I believe that most readers are looking for reasons to stop reading… [o]nce the reader’s attention expires, you have no chance to persuade

– Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers: Essential Tools for Polished and Persuasive Documents, Jones McClure Publishing

I was very kindly sent a review copy of the new legal typography book this week and I’ve really been enjoying it. I’ve written about the website which spawned this book before because it gives a useful introduction to the principles of typography, how it relates to legal writing and why it matters at all (hint – it’s important to make your writing inviting and easily readable because of that quote at the top). The book continues that mission with examples, tips and rules written by a professional typographer turned professional lawyer. Just about every section comes with point by point instructions for implementing it in Word 2003; Word 2007 and 2010; WordPerfect and Pages — a broad range of the most common word processors that you might reasonably expect someone to use. Even then, the advice is universal and you don’t even need those programs to benefit from it. Inside the front cover is a useful list of special characters along with a list of 28 key rules for quick reference. It is a very useful working handbook which is worth keeping close to your desk.

There’s always a worry in my mind that when a popular website publishes a book based on the website they will just stick two covers around what the original website said and not a word more. That’s not the case here and the author has unquestionably given value for money with his new book. There’s a lot of extra material written just for the book and it also avoids some of the limitations of a website format. There’s an inherent catch 22 in presenting typography tips on a website as, for example it’s hard to demonstrate the benefits of high-resolution print-optimised fonts on a website — after all, on page 82 you find out that a monitor has less than 3% of the resolution that a laser printer does. In a book you can immediately point out the little details (and make no mistake – each individual element is a fine detail) that are brushed out to make it easier for screen display. Suddenly “this font is better than this font” discussions make much more sense. The issues of subtlety and fine detail come up a lot – you are encouraged to adjust the size of text by 144ths of an inch at a time to see what works best. The changes are subtle, you can instantly see they’re right after you’ve done it and the worst thing is that you would never even know to do to it without being told first (use invisible “optional hyphens” to tell the computer the best place to split words between lines?). This book tells you how.

The best advice Butterick gives about typography is that it is not an exercise in artistic skill or taste but intent. The purpose of someone studying typography for legal writing is not to turn their case or essay into solid gold by changing the font but to polish it to more clearly show the merits. Studies testing marking styles show that an essay written in bad handwriting will score less than the same essay copied out in good handwriting. People like things to look good and people like things that look good. This is particularly true when people are dealing with piles of broadly similar documents. A judge or marker or supervisor or any professional reader probably does not want to read your document all that much but they have to because it’s their job. The best thing you can do for someone in that unenviable situation is to make it a) easy and b) pleasant for them. Content is king but the medium should not be forgotten.

Typography for Lawyers is on sale now for $25 which, thanks to our global village and affordable shipping, is just £16.07 in real money. Consider it recommended to anyone who writes about law because it’s a crucial element of the process explained very well.

But…

For the next edition it would be good to get some more international information. Your reader isn’t going to want to see different things from American ones so the advice travels well but the book is written from an American point of view – The Bluebook is referred to extensively along with The Chicago Manual of Style, the 7th Circuit’s style guide, the Californian Style Manual and others. In an ideal world I’d like to see about the Court of Session too.

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Book review – Writing for Law (Dave Powell and Emma Teare)

I went for a browse through my local Waterstones this evening and spotted a new release in the law section – Writing for Law (Palgrave Study Skills) by Dave Powell and Emma Teare (ISBN: 978-0-230-23644-8). It has a section on dissertation technique so I naturally snapped it up like the terrified fourth year I now am. I took it home and read the first section on the bus.

Impressions so far

Long and the short of it: I think it’s a great book. I read it with my heart in my mouth looking at all the obvious but elusive things I had not quite been doing all these years. It’s a book that all law students should read, either to teach you something or to reassure you that you’re doing it right afterall.

It covers things including

  • how to cite,
  • what sources count as authoritative,
  • study and skill guides,
  • paper and electronic references,
  • plaigraism,
  • structure,
  • planning,
  • editing
  • research,
  • how to present,
  • how to moot,
  • how to study,
  • how to sit an exam,
  • examples of marking outcomes,
  • learning outcomes (including for your entire degree),
  • identifying dissertation topics,
  • writing dissertations and extended essays.

It’s all really handy stuff and it’s the sort of thing that you really need to know to be able to be really confident about what you’re handing in. It is written from an English perspective (the authors are Senior Lecturers in Law at Teeside University) but the basic skills are immediately transferrable – you have to answer the question no matter where you are.

On the other hand this is another reason to have done a degree before doing law.

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Needless video

I own an iPod Nano. This is not to show off about my latest toy, it’s actually one of the very first iPod Nanos from 2005. I keep using it because it still works and it was quite a lot of money at the time. It does sound, photos and it plays Brick. On the other hand it doesn’t have a touchscreen and it doesn’t run Apps. These are things that I’d probably use if my iPod had them but I’m not bothered enough to buy a new one. The one thing that I’m currently disappointed about is that it doesn’t do video.

the original iPod Nano

The original iPod Nano has a tiny 1.5″ screen and really is only supposed to let you see the name of the song that is currently playing. I don’t really want to watch video on the thing. What I do want to do is copy video podcasts to it. I think this is acceptable because in many cases the video podcast is just a podcast which has a video with it. The video element is seeing the speaker talk to a camera or something else which is nice to have but not enough to add extra content.

A podcast is effectively a recorded radio show which you can download. It can have interviews, fiction, non fiction and so on as long as it is recorded and published as a digital file for download. CharonQC does a very regular, good legal podcast – “law casts” naturally – which illustrates the concept very well. A video podcast – tenuously a “vodcast” – is simply a video file rather than an audio file.

Quite a good example is the really good, highly recommended David Mitchell’s Soapbox which can be effectively summarised as the guy from Peep Show complaining about things. They are speeches which are jazzed up by superimposing Mitchell onto a thematically suitable background, for example in “Waste” he is pictured sitting in a bin. Beyond that the real meat of the content is the speech. It’s just that it could work as a audio file too and if it was an audio file I could put it on my iPod and listen to it while I’m out and about.

This simply comes down the issue of choosing your medium when you prepare a presentation. A podcast about learning to paint is something that benefits from having a video whereas an audiobook does not (an audiobook which adds enough visual content to benefit from having video is called a movie). I think most people’s work will fall in the middle of those extremes and the judgement call has to be made. The take home lesson for today is that it’s important to realise that there actually is a judgement call to make.

The broadband revolution, improved processing capacity and the reduced cost of data storage means that the technical difference between making a podcast and making a “vodcast” is now reasonably narrow – downloading a 20MB video file is now only a couple of minutes, will disappear into a terabyte hard drive and will not strain a quad core processor. If you’re in this position, technologically you really may as well point a camera at stool in front of a blank wall and talk into it. I’d encourage you to avoid picking video because you may as well instead of because it’s better for what you’re doing. A good option if you want to have the best of both worlds is simply to do both, strip the video using your favourite video editing software and just post the sound in a separate download.

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Website recommendation: Typographyforlawyers.com

Of all the websites I could recommend here this will not be the immediately most useful one but I think it’s definitely worth having a look at. www.typographyforlawyers.com is both an example of just how big a country the US is and also a very useful resource on how to set out readable text. I am not a lawyer, but my official day job still involves putting words on and therefore typographyforlawyers.com is useful for me. It’s not designed to teach you how to draft a contract or how to write a letter but it is designed to teach you to set it out attractively and to optimise for readability. It is written by a man who changed careers from typographer to lawyer (and, to demonstrate the number of people in America he is not the only person to have done this) who presents both sides of the argument neatly. He also provides guidance based on the practice guidance of American courts. It would be interesting to know the guidance from our own courts compares.

Given the amount of work that the average student would naturally pour into their words it makes sense to then learn a little about how to present it in an attractive and professional way. You don’t particularly need a huge investment of time – you can certainly put more time in if you feel inclined – but the site itself is a quick read which is logically arranged into a sensible introduction and beginning, intermediate and advanced sections.

The main lesson that I took from the site was that you need to treat printed text differently to onscreen text – I think because of the markedly higher resolution involved. That means that some fonts, for example the ones included with an operating system, are optimised for screen use as opposed to print use and this is not ideal. A more important lesson to take from it is that typography is an effective way to make a document more persuasive and more intelligible. It is not able to make a document’s content better than it is but it can make it clearer and give it a touch of style at the same time.

Performant is not a word (that you should use)

Admittedly it is a word. I just think it’s a very bad word. Teeth on edge sort of thing.

I use a modified version of the Strike Out system when I’m reading things online – if it’s something that’s interesting or important I’ll keep going but if it’s just for fun I will make a quick value judgement and if it’s badly spelt or poorly written in some other way I’m liable to get bored and go read something else. I also have a fairly short trigger for words which were spawned in the bleak hell of the corporate report/presentation.

Blue-sky-thinking-out-of-the-box has me physically wrestling the mouse towards the close box. Performant’s another word that gets a wince out of me. I think it’s a word you use to sound clever, like the egregious user of French. Which can be me sometimes but that’s because French is more beautiful as language than I am skilled in its performance. Remember I’m not here to say I’m perfect, just that using it to my hypocritical self is dicey.

The biggest problem with performant is that it’s a waste of a word, it’s entirely reliant on context to reveal what particular facet of performance you’re actually referring to.  The next is the smugness which fair drips off the word, it’s a masonic handshake of a buzz-word clique, you either get it or you’re not cool.  Thirdly is the fact that other words actually suit the situations where it gets rolled out entirely better.

This is due to me reading a review on the new Ubuntu Netbook Remix (9.04) release which said that the reviewer’s system was “more performant” with the new interface turned off.  The reviewer means his computer was quicker after he disabled the newly added parts and that’s obvious.  It’s still entirely valid though and there’s no shame in saying it was more responsive or merely just “faster”, which conveys more information while being half as many words.  There’s simply no need to dive into corporate speak.

Edit (ugly, rant of a paragraph deleted): In hindsight does every post need a sharp non sequitr about law?  Probably not, I don’t like the word, that’s all I’m actually saying.

Mooting

I’ve just had my first round of the law’s school’s internal law moot competition for this year.

What is mooting?

Mooting is a style of student debating – it was originally used in Inns of Court to train pupil barristers and advocates. The name comes from the moot problem which the competitors argue over– a problem which doesn’t matter but we discuss it anyway for the practice.

It’s good because it lets real trainee advocates and barristers practice their presentation and preparation skills without the risk of actually consigning a real person to years in jail. It’s all the stages of a regular court appearance, the finding and locating cases, constructing a legal argument to support your client and then presenting it in front of an arbiter while another person argues exactly the same point on the opposite side.

Why do I moot

I personally joined up in first year because it sounded very cool, in a geeky law student way. I didn’t sign up to law school for the essay assignments after all –I’m not concerned about the money I can earn from being a fully qualified lawyer yet, since that’s in the future and I’m still learning but I do, and have always, loved public speaking. When you combine that with my long lasting interest in law and my interest in how it works it’s completely natural and inevitable that I’d join my mooting society.

Having actually done it, last year my one and only question was on a topic that forced me to read ahead an entire semester and I suddenly discovered that not only was this really interesting it was also extremely helpful to my own.

This year it was a look over a topic I’d studied from the very start of my studies – criminal –and it was fascinating to go back and, instead of roughly scanning it within the limits of the accredited course from the Law Society and learning those cases and principles that were potentially going to turn up in the exam but not one paragraph further because I was working on other subjects at the same time. The moot problem gave me an incentive to go back and really read my textbook with more care than I previously did.

I very quickly discovered that you only study the rough edges of the course when you sit in your hour long lectures in your first, painful months of student life and that coming back and looking at the textbooks – reading them in a very focused, time conscious way is a great way to pick up an entirely different understanding of the law which will stick with you.

Why should you moot

Mooting is a much a game as it is a performance art. It’s a pubic speaking opportunity played by people who hope to become professionals – therefore there’s huge potential for the quality of your competition to be utterly astonishing. The level at the beginner stage is safe enough to step up into and since the scoring is more to do with the style of your presentation and ability to keep some rules in your head than any understanding of the law involved. Occasionally, with a sympathetic judge, a good understanding of the principles involved will carry you through but nevertheless – you aim to win on style while your opponents should be happy with the consolation prize of winning on the law.

There’s more money in it than high school debating as well, just as law firms like to show largess to student competitions you can see sponsored contests where the competitors walk away with both money and a nod in the job market. Speaking as someone who once won a handful of Argos vouchers for a national inter-school competition I’ll never get over the prizes of law competitions.

What it’s good for

Mooting should not always be seen as an educational experience – even though it’s a particularly good one and you’ll never, ever forget the points you’ve forcibly scored into your brain – because it’s also extremely good fun. It’s innately social – you’re working with another law student at close quarters for a long time and you make good friendships through it.

You work astonishingly hard when you’re preparing a moot. I’m not the most dedicated worker the world has ever seen yet as soon as I’m introduced to the social sanction of letting my well prepared partner down in the moot court it’s hard to separate me from my books.

It boosts your presentation skills, while most obviously it’s a crash course at presenting orally for up to 15-20 minutes at a time you also have to prepare a bundle for yourself and the judge and the presentation of these is another issue which is worth looking into. The bundle needs artfully juggled as you tell the judge where your next quote is coming from and this is a useful preparation skill in itself. Too often I find myself only reading the basic principle from a textbook or journal article and not looking to the primary source to give my argument support, it’s a terrible academic technique and it’ll never succeed in mooting, so you stop it very quickly.

It boosts your presentation skills – this bears repeating. You talk, present, on a technical point of law for a double figures of minutes (at least 10 minutes) periods of time. This is an eternity to spend on your feet and it teaches you skills, including simply the stamina to keep going, which you can’t pick up talking in other ways. If you want to become an advocate or a barrister, this is something you need to look at improving and training. The small sized group and competitive nature means that there is little problem standing up and talking, so it’s good for people who suffer from performance nerves. Genuinely, in the years I have been mooting there is no one present who is looking for you to mess up. Both of the teams are too focused on their own points, the clerk is more concerned about court behaviour and timing and the judge has a fairly hard interactive role to perform to cheer for any individual’s mistakes.

If you attend a university with a good society it’s altogether a fantastic social experience and I think, although this blog stays out of details, that my own society is lead by a number of very talented and very nice people who look after new members in particular extremely well. If you attend law school in Glasgow you have a one in three chance of getting to experience this.
Remember, the societies attached to your law school are even more important than the lectures. You can catch up on nearly all the material covered in lectures on your own time from books but you’ve only got the short time you’ve got in university to attend the clubs and societies. Don’t miss out on the extra bits, they’re often very useful and they can be fantastically good fun.