Language and the Law An Interview With Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore

Language and the Law An Interview With Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore

As a child, Sarah Gerwig-Moore thought she would grow up to become an English professor.  Those plans changed:  One look at the job market for someone with a Ph.D. in English led her to law school.

In an internship as a law student, she found a way to marry her love of writing with her concern for social justice.  She became an appellate defender and went on to teach public defenders about effective legal writing.

Now, as a professor at Mercer University’s acclaimed law school, Professor Gerwig-Moore teaches in the Law and Public Service Program. In that role, she directs a unique law clinic where students work on research and writing projects that benefit real clients. 

Mercer has been ranked number one in the country by U.S. News and World Report for its legal writing program. To align itself with Mercer’s reputation, the Legal Writing Institute recently chose to move its headquarters to Mercer.   To maintain this competitive edge, Mercer law students take at least four classes related to legal research and writing (most law schools require only one or two courses).  Upperclassmen have the opportunity to further hone their skills in small advanced-writing groups or in Professor Gerwig-Moore’s clinic.

Professor Gerwig-Moore believes that clear writing is the most important skill a lawyer can possess.  Her efforts to teach these skills to others have not been overlooked.  Recently she was chosen one of five young people who are making a difference in the community (Macon Magazine, September 2008).  In addition, she has been successful in nearly all of her appellate cases.

In the midst of handling several requests from students on a Monday afternoon, Professor Gerwig-Moore was willing to talk with WD Communications in a telephone interview. 

WD:  Tell us about your decision to switch from becoming an English professor to joining the legal profession.

SGM:  I was concerned that I would have a hard time finding a tenure-track position with a Ph.D. in English, and I had also become involved in a school chapter of Amnesty International.  I saw a law degree as a practical route but one that would allow me to work on issues of inequality or injustice.

WD:  Your bio shows that both writing and law are part of your DNA.  Did you ever consider a career outside those fields?

SGM:  I have always been interested in a lot of different things, and I vaguely recall wanting to be an orchestra conductor, a pastry chef, and an avian veterinarian—in no particular order.

WD:  With the written word being so important to you, your decision to join the faculty at Mercer University must have been an easy one.

SGM:  Yes, when a position opened up to help develop a Law and Public Service Program, I was really honored to join the faculty.  Here, I am able to continue my own work on behalf of poor clients but also teach students important skills and approaches to professionalism.

WD:  How are the language and the law uniquely connected?

SGM:  Well, people always joke about lawyers splitting hairs about verb tenses or careful phrasing, but words are important in our work.  Language is our most important tool in arguing—whether in speech or on paper—for our client’s position.  Comma placement can often make a difference in determining the meaning of a contract, and it is our job to read carefully and write carefully.

WD:  Let’s talk more about careful writing.  Tell us about the emphasis your law school places on writing. Did you experience this same sort of emphasis when you were in law school?

SGM:  When I was in law school, I took two short courses in legal research and writing.  My professor was an adjunct professor, not a part of the regular law faculty on a tenure track or paid equally with other faculty.

It was clear as a student that legal writing was not a curricular emphasis.  At Mercer, our legal writing faculty members are superstars.  They publish in the area of legal writing and are able to give our students personal attention and real mentoring.  Every student who comes to me as a third-year student in the clinic has been through several rigorous courses that emphasize careful writing—but writing that is also interesting and well crafted. 

WD:  Do you look primarily for students who are equipped with good writing skills, or do you accept someone who may have high LSATs but less than impressive writing skills?

SGM:  When making admission decisions, the law school primarily looks at an index between LSAT scores and undergraduate grades.  But the personal essay often makes a difference.

WD:  After students are accepted, what courses do they take that focus primarily on the written word?

SGM:  Every student must take at least the following courses:  Legal Research, Legal Writing 1, Legal Writing 2, and Legal Analysis.  All students must also take a seminar that culminates in a major research paper.  But we have many upper level courses that offer a focus on legal writing, as well as careful feedback from both faculty and peers.

WD:  Can you cite any examples with ambiguity or sloppiness that resulted in unexpected court decisions?

SGM:  Yes.  I once handled a case where an appellate court had on its own (sua sponte) remanded a case for a hearing on whether the appellate lawyer was constitutionally ineffective.  The writing in the brief had been so bad that the court was concerned that the client had not received quality representation.

WD:  So, are we becoming a society of sloppy writers?

SGM:  Yes.  I think we are all guilty of hitting the “send” button—whether actually or metaphorically—before we have proofread and “word-smithed.”   Multitasking is a reality for most of us, and e-mail is undoubtedly very convenient. 

However, I often hear from judges that informal language and sloppy typos are creeping into court documents and arguments.  That’s embarrassing for the lawyers, of course, but this informality and sloppiness can also negatively impact those lawyers’ cases.  I still can’t bring myself to send a text message without apostrophes or other punctuation.  But I suspect that I’m one of a few with those scruples, and those folks are the lawyers of the next generation.

WD:  That may be so.  In the meantime, your efforts and our efforts at WD will encourage a more correct, precise use of the written word.

SGM:  Absolutely.  Now that I have chosen this career path, I am dedicated to ensuring that our students are prepared to think, reason, problem-solve, and communicate to the best of their abilities.  The best legal mind in the world also needs to be a great communicator.

WD:  We agree completely and wish you great success in achieving your goals at Mercer.  Thank you for your time and your insight.

SGM:  You’re certainly welcome.  Stay in touch!