U.S. District Court Judge Staci M. Yandle, who sits on the bench for the Southern District of Illinois, knows a thing or two about what the Court expects out of new, and old, attorneys.
Appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014, Judge Yandle has presided over hundreds of cases ranging from child predators, and bank robbers, to class actions and complex civil litigation. In 2016, she sat by designation on the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
As a practicing attorney for over 20 years, Yandle was known by her peers as a fierce litigator; the kind of litigator who knew how to present a case, with an eye for detail, a focus on proper word usage, and how to do all of that with integrity.
Judge Yandle, known for her sharpness, intellect, and honesty, agreed to sit down with me, a rising third-year law student. Yandle shared her vast knowledge on effective writing practices and courtroom etiquette; important tools for young attorneys that are in training in law school.
It was mentioned to me that when you graduated law school, you were taken on by a great mentor. Is mentorship essential for young attorneys coming out of law school?
I would not say that it’s essential, but I would say it is extremely important. I think to the extent that coming out of law school and getting started in the practice, to the extent that you can actually have an active mentor, meaning someone who is actually there mentoring you, and willing to take the time and putting in the effort, that is extraordinary.
That’s not saying you cannot do it alone; people do it every day, but there is an exceptional value in having someone like that to invest themselves and their time.
I absolutely know that everything I was able to do in the law, up to this point, was because of my mentor. He played a huge role in not only training, mentoring, but he put a lot of trust in me. He had a good balance. He didn’t micromanage me, but he was kind of like always that safety net.
My mentor would let me make mistakes, knowing that they weren’t going to be fatal. He was like, ‘I’m not going to talk you through that, you need to process that.’
I tell my externs and law clerks that a lot. I want them to use their brain to be able to process through an issue. I tell them, ‘Analyze through this, I’m not going to give you the answer, the answer is there.’ I do that because I know the value of that, and that taught me to be able to think things through.
What values did your mentor impress upon you, and are those important to young attorneys?
One of the values he taught, which I think is very important, is analytical thinking, and not looking to practice law by recipe. For example, not being afraid to process and analyze to come up with an answer and stand by the answer and not being afraid that it is the wrong answer; and processing through the legal issue, and having confidence. As far as even planning out your case, for example, how you are going to prosecute your case, this is the stuff that is important.
What you see a lot with young attorneys, and even older attorneys, they have a fear of committing and narrowing, and they cast a wide net because they are afraid of missing something. One of the values my mentor gave me was not cast that wide net. For example, say ‘these are your issues,’ and be okay with it. You can throw in the kitchen sink, but that really weakens your case.
The other value I got from him was fearlessness. For example, committing to your theory of that case and moving forward.
I also learned honesty in practice. My mentor was old school. One thing about old school trial lawyers: you could always take them at their word. If they say this you could take it to the bank, you didn’t need to write it down; you didn’t have to have a written agreement. That is lost now. That’s how I learned to practice.
What advice do you have for new attorneys who have little to no writing experience?
The challenges that I see that both young and more experienced lawyers have, when it comes to their legal writing in terms of their briefs, is a couple of things.
What I see more with younger attorneys than I see with more experienced attorneys (and it actually drives me crazy) is grammar. It seems they are very causal with grammar: that’s sentence structure, punctuation, and they just seem not to care.
It’s almost like young lawyers almost write legally like they text, or like they speak. I see a lot of that. That’s different than the young attorneys when I was coming around because we were, I think, a little bit more grammatically sound.
The other challenge I see lawyers have is the organization of arguments. They tend to be all over the place. That’s not always true. But I can see where they don’t yet, (and this is perhaps more applicable to younger attorneys) have a grasp of how to logically organize their arguments.
Is that something you learn through practice?
I think it is something that you hone through practice. I can certainly see easily where law school writing curriculum could emphasize that more. In order to be effective, legal writing is much more focused and concise than creative writing.
You want to stay away from legalese. It may sound good to you, but is it really understandable to the jury? I call it Shakespearian—I get you can write in Shakespearian. However, take yourself out of that situation after you write the draft, step away from it and then go back to it and read it. If it feels clumsy to you, if it feels like it is not clear to you, it is because it’s not.
Does bad writing effect how the Court decides a case?
The majority of matters, motions, etcetera, I decide on the papers. If all the matters were heard via oral argument, matters would never get anywhere. So many motions, even dispositive motions, are disposed of on the papers. And, unless there are some additional questions that need to be addressed, my determination is made on the papers. I wouldn’t say that how attorneys write clouds my thinking or influences my bottom line. I mean, I don’t look at it and say, ‘my God this guy can’t write, I can’t rule for him,’ but it may effect how I interpret or how I analyze their position. If attorneys cannot communicate their position effectively and thoroughly in writing, it may impact my analysis that is based on that writing.
What makes an attorney a good advocate, one that is effective?
There’s only so much you can learn in school. You actually don’t learn how to be an effective advocate in law school. Most of the stuff that is taught in law school is the theory of law. So, that’s again something that comes from practice. Those are skills that you hone in practice, and that’s based on you getting the opportunity, and getting the experience, because nobody steps into the courtroom for the first time knowing exactly what they are doing.
However, some people have enough of the natural skill sets that make them better trial lawyers than others, like the ability to understand your own case, and your own theory of the case, and effective communication skills.
Another thing that I think is really important, and which people struggle with, is being your authentic self and working it into that, because that’s when you’re at your most comfortable, and the jury picks up on that. Acting like a lawyer is one thing, and people come in thinking I need to act like a lawyer, I need to be the Perry Mason type. They perpetrate all these different things, and it is so transparent, and so obviously phony and fake, the jury picks up on that, as opposed to knowing who you are and being able to be yourself and do your advocacy within that context.
Is there room for innovation within the legal profession; do you think law schools are forward thinking in that way?
Practice techniques change every day, because lawyers are creative. They take risks and think of different ways of doing things. I think that lawyers are uniquely equipped to be innovators; it’s just that some of them are risk adverse. You’ve got to take risks.
I think law schools try to do that. I think law students may misinterpret what the focus is.
Students may focus on the theory of law, and that’s the substantive law that they learn in law school and think that’s the most important thing. Some of that substantive law you’ll never see again, when actually the most important things are the skill sets: your communication skills, your analytical skills, your organizational skills, and your work ethic. That’s what’s going to contribute more to your success.
This interview has been edited and condensed.