Conquering the Writing Competition & Law Review

If you’re a 1L, one of the last things on your mind right before this spring’s final exam period is probably your school’s upcoming writing competition.  You might not even know if you want to be on a journal, but I cannot stress to you enough how important it is, and how that crazy 48-hour writing frenzy will pay off in the long run.  Even though you’re definitely busy enough with outlining and study sessions, there are some things that you can do right now to help prepare you to conquer the writing competition.

  1. Learn about your school’s journals.  Most schools hold information sessions to teach 1Ls about the different journals – try to attend one.  If you cannot, look on your school’s website, or stop by the journal offices to try and get more information.  Skim a copy of the journal’s most recent edition to see what kinds of topics get published.  You should know which of the journals is most appealing to you, so that you can rank your preferences prior to the writing competition.  (Some schools might do it differently, but Brooklyn Law School has 1Ls rank their preferences, and then you get offered membership on the highest-ranked journal that also wanted you.)  While you’re learning about the journals, be sure to find out as much as you can about the writing competition process.  My school held a 48-hour writing competition that you had to download from a site and turn in by a set deadline.  I think most schools have a similar process, but some might make selections differently – for example, some might have a certain percentage of members “grade on” (i.e., they don’t have to do the competition, they just have good enough grades to become a member), or they might have certain minimum GPA requirements.  Having this information will allow you to easily target the right journal for you, as well as prepare mentally for the writing competition process.
  2. Bond with your bluebook.  A couple of weeks ago, I attended Ms. JD’s event, “Building Her Bower Base: Improving Diversity on Law Reviews.”  At this event, a panel comprised of professors, practitioners, students, and judges discussed the importance of law student participation on law reviews.  (Check out the recap here, along with the accompanying 2012-2013 Law Review Diversity Report.)  One of the highlights of that program for me was when Julie Silverbrook, the moderator, told students to “bond with your bluebook.”  It sounds silly, but it is beyond true.  My 1L year, I highlighted and flagged up my bluebook, and I still reference those portions today while I’m drafting briefs and doing research.  Master the big things first – citations to authority (with extra emphasis on your jurisdiction), statutes, books, etc. – and leave some of the smaller things for later.  If you need extra help, consult your writing professor, your school’s library, or any other writing skills resources offered by your school.  Knowing how to bluebook will not only save you time during the time-crunched writing competition, but it will also serve you throughout the rest of your career.
  3. Brush up on your writing skills.  One of my favorite books is William Strunk’s Elements of Style (yes, this is a nerdy thing to admit).  But really that book has taught me so much, and it is a perfect reference tool for those times you forget how to use semicolons or oxford commas.  If you know you struggle with certain aspects of writing, review the relevant portions of the book first, and keep it handy during the competition as well.  You should be able to find a copy in your school’s library or with a professor if you’re in a rush, but eventually you should invest in a copy for yourself.  (If you already have it, I also just bought The Elements of Legal Style, by Bryan A. Garner, last week, and I can already tell that it will also be useful!)  Possessing strong basic grammar and writing skills is a huge draw for employers, and will earn you respect from your co-workers, adversaries, and judges reading your briefs and motion papers.


What about during the writing competition?  Once you’ve gotten your writing competition assignment and are allowed to start writing, here’s what you should do:

  1. Don’t panic.  These competitions are designed to be difficult, to test how potential members approach and analyze problems.  That means there is no “right” answer to the problem you’ve been given.  Don’t let the time crunch and the overload of information given to you scare you from completing the assignment.  I have a couple of friends who started the competition, but then panicked, never finished, and never got on to a journal.  It can be hard to push through an extra 48 hours of writing madness after two weeks of finals, but remind yourself that it is temporary, and that you’ll be free for the summer right after you submit your paper!
  2. Read, and re-read, the problem.  I’m pretty sure my writing competition was about immigration, administrative law, and constitutional rights versus individual liberties – meaning, it was about a whole bunch of topics that I did not even begin to understand.  Wrapping your head around the problem is the most important thing you can do to make sure that you’re addressing the real issues in the problem; while there is no right answer to the problem, there is still a correct way to go about answering the problem.  That means that you have to use all of the information you have been given – my school provided a closed universe of relevant statutes and case law for me to use, so I did not have to do any outside research.  Trust that you have not been given anything extraneous, and that every document in the problem will help you formulate your analysis.  If you get strapped for time and cannot cite to every case you have been given, that is also okay – just be sure that the cases you have cited to are useful and add value to your argument.
  3. Take breaks.  I have a habit of moving apartments right after finals, so I was right in the middle of packing during my writing competition weekend.  I don’t recommend it, but this did give me a chance to take mini breaks from writing – which I highly recommend!  Take a walk around the block, play with a puppy, eat a snack (really, eat something!), or even take a nap if you need it.  Sitting and writing in circles for 48 hours straight is a useless exercise for most people, and there is no reason you should even attempt to do this.  Breaks can help you to clear your mind, and come back ready to push through a few more hours of writing.
  4. Spell check.  I don’t mean just run spell check on your computer.  Actually print out your submission and read a hard copy version a few hours before the deadline.  You’ll be surprised how many times you types “an” instead of “and” or accidentally italicized a comma in a citation (this is an actual bluebook rule that I did not learn until my 2L year).  Even if you don’t catch substantive problems this way, it will help to ensure that your final product is polished and ready for submission.


What if, even after all this work, you do not make it onto a journal or law review?

  1. Keep trying.  Most journals probably do not allow you to participate in the writing competition again, but know that there are other ways to become involved or even get published.  Some journals allow you to “write on,” gaining membership by submitting an original paper you have written.  Other schools have blogs or online journals that allow students to contribute shorter works.  If you still cannot find a way to contribute to a journal, be sure to take at least one legal writing or drafting class (not including your 1L writing class!) so that you can hone your writing skills further and have writing samples for employers. 
  2. Look outside your school.  Find other ways to get published: create your own blog; contribute to other blogs (like Ms. JD!); submit articles to local bar association newsletters; ask your friends and co-workers of any other opportunities.  One of the partners at a firm I intern at happens to be Chair of a NY State Bar section, and let me write event recaps for publication in the section's newsletter.  Don't be afraid to ask for opportunities like this; you never know who has connections and will help you out.


Journal membership is a major component of your law school career.  You should make every effort to participate and refine your writing skills, while contributing to academic scholarship.  Hopefully these tips will help you prepare for the competition and finish up 1L year on a good note! 

Conquer the $1000 by winning a writing competition on ThePensters.

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