Plainly speaking Cooley Law professor teaches students to write with clarity

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Mark Cooney has a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne on his course webpage: "Easy reading is damn hard writing."

The message is loud and clear for students of Cooney, professor of Research & Writing and Advanced Writing at Cooley Law School.

"I preach clarity, which requires a lot of different things -- good large-scale organization, good sentence sequence, good sentence structure, good word choice, good punctuation, good comprehension of the law -- so many things," he says. "Clarity is devilishly hard. Nobody ever said that writing is easy."

It's a tough lesson but rewarding.

"I love watching the first-year students walk in knowing nothing about formal legal writing and then, three months later, leave the class producing work that's really, really good," he says. "And I love watching them buy into the plain-language approach and see it pay off."

Cooney has indulged his own passion for writing by authoring 13 pieces for the Michigan Bar Journal's "Plain Language" column, edited by his mentor, Cooley law professor Joe Kimble. Cooney's columns have been a tad offbeat, including a piece about a verb getting drunk in bar.

"After Joe Kimble accepted it, I was emboldened, much to the horror, I'm sure, of the Michigan bar," he says with a smile.

Later columns included a mock letter to Cooney's fourth grade teacher, a lawyer on trial for writing run-on sentences, a boxing match between the words "because" and "clearly," and an overworked lawyer carrying on a late-night conversation with a draft appeal brief.

"Lawyering is incredibly demanding -- I remember that, believe me," he says. "Sitting down to read the Bar Journal was a luxury, and I always assume that any lawyer or judge reading those Plain Language pieces is probably doing it during an abbreviated lunch hour, in the midst of a hectic day, and probably while scarfing a tuna-fish sandwich. So if I can make them smile or laugh for just a minute, while giving them some useful information about legal writing, I'm a happy man."

Two serious legal pieces appeared in the ABA Law Student Division magazine "Student Lawyer," including one cover article; and an article fashioned as a miniature legal-writing casebook will soon appear in "The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing." Cooney has also written a textbook chapter on medical-malpractice law and a law-review article on legal-malpractice law - two of his primary practice areas.

But even his articles on legal writing are often tongue-in-cheek, with titles like "Are You a Hyphen-Happy Lawyer?", "To Mrs. Finklebean: The Truth about Conjunctions as Sentence Starters," "The Extra-Stuff Rule," and "Do the Opposite: Impress Sophisticated Legal Professionals with Writing that Makes Sense to Laypeople."

Cooney also enjoys "a secret life as an amateur outdoors writer," publishing a variety of short works with a fly-fishing theme, often in publications for conservation organizations.

"Most have been humor pieces -- at least arguably humorous."

But his favorite piece was a serious essay published in a Yale University undergraduate journal, "The Yale Anglers' Journal."

"A fishing journal may sound a bit frivolous to folks who aren't into fishing, but this is a literate journal that has published works by the likes of former President Jimmy Carter. I'm really proud that I was able to sneak something in there."

Cooney might have become a full-time writer - or a psychologist, after earning an undergrad degree in the subject from Rutgers. He describes himself after graduation as "a lost camper, with no clue what to do with my life." But then he visited his older brother, at the time a litigation attorney in Miami, who took him to court hearings in the Miami Immigration Court and in the U.S. District Court -- and his future clicked into place.

He followed a Rutgers acquaintance to Cooley, touted in law school guidebooks as having a great focus on practical lawyering skills.

"I wanted to go to court like my big brother, so that was appealing -- as was the chance to earn one of Cooley's generous merit scholarships," he says.

Cooney was impressed with his professors, who are now his colleagues.

"They were amazing. I mean, just amazing teachers. And they were demanding. I loved the rigor. I also loved the practical focus. By the time my classmates and I were done, we'd argued a mock motion before a circuit judge in his actual courtroom, had tried four mock cases in a circuit court with a practicing lawyer sitting as judge, and had taken mock depositions. Plus, all the writing. We were learning how to do all the things that I did for real just a year or so later."

He appreciates that the faculty comprises lawyers teaching students to be lawyers.

"From the president to the deans to the faculty, we've practiced - for years. We're very much a part of the State Bar and our local bars. We serve on bar committees and in bar sections. If you look in the Bar Journal, you'll see us. We aren't detached from the legal community that surrounds us."

Before coming to Cooley, Cooney spent 10 years in private practice with civil-litigation firms, during which he received The Cooley Law Review's Distinguished Brief Award. He began his career handling all aspects of civil litigation, including trials, but eventually turned to appellate work. Most recently he was in practice at Collins, Einhorn, Farrell & Ulanoff in Southfield.

He recalls his practice days fondly, "although it's easy to think that way now that I don't have all the rapid-fire deadlines."

"I worked with great people at every firm. I learned so much from them. I still tap into writing lessons I learned. I loved the challenge of achieving clarity -- of writing a brief that made an unfamiliar legal issue and unfamiliar facts accessible to my reader, whether a judge or a clerk. I wanted my brief to be the easiest read in the pile. I fell short many times, I'm sure, but I never stopped trying.

"It's all about clarity. You can't persuade a reader if your brief is unclear."

Published: Wed, Mar 14, 2012