Interview with Keith Boak, Legal Writing Launch Student, and International Student Graduate of UCLA School of Law LLM Degree Program (Master of Laws)

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BEV: Today I am with Keith Boak, one of my students in Legal Writing Launch. I’m Bev Meyers, the Founder of Legal Writing Launch. Keith, we’ve been working together now for about three months or so?

KEITH: Yeah, I would say so, roughly. . . .

BEV: So, tell me a little bit about you coming to me. Let’s start first with that you didn’t get a JD, right? You got an LLM. 

KEITH: Yeah, I got an LL.M. I have an LL.B.

BEV: You were saying you got an LLB, tell me about what that is.

KEITH: When I was much younger, considerably younger, I studied at Bristol University in the UK and studied a law degree, which we receive an LLB which is the equivalent of a JD here in the U.S. But for me, it was a few decades ago that I did that, and I went on and had a different career and worked in television and film. It was only when I came back to the U.S., and I got interested in the criminal justice system for various reasons. . . . , and I asked the Bar, the California Bar [Examiners] if I could possibly sit for the Bar. . . . They required one year of study in order for me to sit for the Bar. And that required me to do a master’s degree, an LLM, at any U.S. university that was accredited by the California Bar. I then applied to UCLA  and was accepted to study in the LLM course.

BEV: Were you already living in the United States?

KEITH: Yeah, I’d been living in the United States for seven years prior to that because I’d worked here as a television director, which is my other life. I just took this moment to segue into law again and study for a year and sit the Bar. And however unusual it was, in many ways, the COVID lockdown facilitated the studying process, and I can’t help but wonder whether I would have achieved without the complete lack of distraction, which that created. It was an unusual time, but therefore I sat in 2020, graduated from UCLA in 2020, sat the Bar in October 2020, and then received the pass mark in January 2021. And this is where I then set about trying to find work in a legal firm, and this is obviously where you and I ultimately connected.  Because when I did get an appointment as an Associate Attorney at a criminal defense firm, which was the field I was looking to . . . [it was] soon revealed that there was one or two gaps in this kind of concertinaed education that I’d had.

BEV: Let’s unpack this a little bit. You decided to take your master’s in LLM at UCLA and, by the way, today is November 14th of 2021, and so you were going to school in 2020.

KEITH: Yeah.

BEV: [Which] masters was it in [the] LLM? Was it just a general LLM; was it in criminal justice, or what was it?

KEITH: Yeah, it was in law. I ended up with a Master’s, an LLM Masters in Law, and I actually had a human rights’ specialization because the subjects I chose qualified for a specialization credit.

BEV: . . . Tell me about your classmates. This was a virtual program, right? So, I don’t know how well you knew them or what you saw of them.

KEITH: It was an in-person program because I started in August 2019. So, we were all in person. I went to UCLA for the full term and then we had the winter break and then we started back in the spring term. As we started around January the sixth and by late February we went into lockdown. The university actually moved faster than some of the other institutions; and, we were then sent home and we went remote and everyone discovered Zoom. So, we finished from about the end of February. So, for the last two months we were on Zoom doing lectures . . .  then we had to study for the final exams, and we took them remotely, as well.

BEV: So, then the students that you were with were also getting LLMs; how many would you say were from other countries, such as yourself, and how many were from the United States?

KEITH: Nearly all were from other countries, and I remember them mentioning this really early on.  And I can’t be exact about the figures, but I think it was something like 110 people in this LLM course and 50 percent were from southeast Asia, a mixture of Korea, China, Malaysia, these particular areas that was quite substantial and Taiwan, as well. And then there were probably 25 percent that were European, a smattering of Canadians and then probably something in the region between 10 and 15 were U.S. students.

BEV: But not so much from Mexico or South America?

KEITH: You know there were [students from Mexico] . . . a couple of Guatemalan [students] and a smattering of people from South America.

BEV: How was everyone’s English in terms of speaking in the program when you would talk to your class?

KEITH: It varied . . . . And it was so admirable for some of the kids whose English was not brilliant, and you only ever knew it because they were the ones who were bold enough to speak up. There were probably plenty whose English was even worse who just didn’t speak in class, and I’ll never know. And I’m sure many of them (I mean I found law difficult), so coming from a different language and speaking it and learning it in a different language [must have been difficult].

BEV: Did you have occasion to read anything that any of your colleagues wrote?

KEITH: Not really, no. I mean, having said that, that’s not true. Because we had to devise a system. The workload was quite intense, and I ended up doing case briefs with two other people [due to] the workload. So, we split it and we shared that, so I invariably read their case briefs. And actually, of those two other people one was from India and the other one was from South America.

BEV: How was their writing? Did it seem to be okay?

KEITH: Yeah, very much so, yeah. They had a good grasp of English. . . .

BEV: But these were case briefs; these were not necessarily memos or letters or motions?

KEITH: No. I don’t know how they would have fared in that kind of world.

BEV: Now you indicated that you took the California Bar Exam and you passed it, which was great. What kind of legal writing did you get training in during the LLM at UCLA?

KEITH: None. There is an omission, on their part. We arrive and we’re given a vast array of subjects we can pick from and there is a slight lack of information about, “You’re going to need this. Take this! I know it doesn’t sound like the most attractive, appealing course but you have to have it.” And that was one of the omissions that UCLA is guilty of, and they needed to say that if you want to practice in any particular field of law in the U.S., you’re going to need legal writing. So, I just avoided it.

BEV: Was it an option? I mean, you could have taken Legal Writing?

KEITH: Yeah, Legal Writing was an option.

BEV: Could you have taken Advanced Legal Writing, too?

KEITH: I think it would have just been probably a single legal writing for the master’s students, but it was certainly there. It was available both terms, but you would have had to have traded other things that you really wanted to do and the problem with LLM is you’ve got one [year], two terms. . . . And, you have to cram a huge amount into that amount of time.

BEV: Especially for you if you wanted to specialize in human rights.

KEITH: Completely. So, there were a handful of courses I had to take to qualify for that. But in retrospect, even now, if it wasn’t one of my selected courses, I could have attended Legal Writing classes alongside without credit, for example. I could have done that.

BEV: You now have learned from Legal Writing Launch there’s no substitute for rolling up your own sleeves and writing and having somebody critique your writing to move you forward.

KEITH: Yes.

BEV: You went on to take the California Bar [Exam] and fortunately you passed the first time around. How did you prepare for it in terms of writing? Did you feel like it was challenging because you didn’t necessarily have the background in legal writing to be able to pass the bar?

KEITH: Yeah, I think it was challenging in retrospect, but I read quite a lot of sample answers and I found that I read the problems, I read the sample answers, and I kept trying to see what it was they were doing. The perfect sample answers I could see how they looked at each problem, analyzed it, stated, and working on what was then an IRAC principle.  So, the Issue, Rule, Analysis, and Conclusion I worked out that even if my knowledge of law wasn’t up to scratch.  If I maintained some sort of clear system of explanation as to what I was doing, hopefully the examiner would see that I’d be making their life easier. That they would be able to see that I was thinking like a lawyer even if I wasn’t on the money.

I made a real [attempt] in the Bar, and I was convinced I’d failed the Bar simply from how much I knew compared to the questions that came up.  But, the one thing I did do was [use] good headings: Issue, Rule, here it is, Analysis. So, I was a clear read. So, I think if there was one thing that maybe got me through it might be that an examiner might go, “Oh, thank God this guy’s laid it out. At least I can read it clearly.”

BEV: Did you take a Bar Review Course?

KEITH: Yeah, I took Kaplan. . . . I can’t compare them with anybody [else]; they had all the necessary materials there.  They had everything that I think I needed. In many ways, I know I did a huge amount of work, but there’s a huge amount of luck that comes into it. Because it was a terribly traumatic experience, as anybody who sat the Bar will admit.

BEV: . . . We’re talking about at UCLA, your colleagues that graduated. You said they’re mostly international students. Do you know any type of percentage of them that stayed in the United States and went on to practice law or do you have any sense of that?

KEITH: No, I don’t, genuinely. I know some did but I think what was interesting is many of them were looking to work. I mean, they did a little poll right at the beginning of the group, I think it was something like 80 percent were looking to work in corporate or entertainment law, interestingly. You’re talking 20 percent were interested in civil litigation or criminal or human rights.  So, we were the minority and so a lot of people were taking the qualification back to their native country and getting the value out of it that way.

BEV: Excuse me but the 80 percent . . . , what was it, corporate or entertainment?

KEITH: Yeah.

BEV: You think they were going to bring that back to their country or are they going to try to work in LA?

KEITH: I think obviously LA; the entertainment people were keen to probably work in LA.  But,  I think for people who are interested in corporate law, it was just a UCLA credit in their home country that might have been of value to them. I’m just guessing of course.

BEV: Yeah, you don’t know from a poll.

KEITH: But I know, as well, it wasn’t a huge number that sat the Bar. Not everyone, probably say out of that 110, there were probably 40, maybe, sat the Bar.

BEV: Let’s segue into your taking Legal Writing Launch. What prompted you to look for a legal writing course?

KEITH: It was the Senior Attorney I worked for that wasn’t particularly impressed with my legal writing, so I had to own it and say, “Well, look, this is how I studied and I haven’t officially done a legal writing course, which all JDs do.” It’s year one you start with legal writing and then I think it can carry on into their second year in some ways.

BEV: But you would be surprised. In other words, this course, Legal Writing Launch, is not just simply for LLM students, it’s for JD students, a number of new lawyers, people who failed the bar, that type of thing. And again, because they haven’t had sufficient practice in legal writing, so that it’s really part of how they write, in their DNA.

KEITH: Yeah. Because it’s one subject at college and if they don’t grasp it in that first year and they move on to other things, and as you know as you clearly made clear to me, it’s not something you master in one go. It’s an ongoing lifelong journey of improvement.

BEV: Right, you do need the basics in it to even get started. So, then you did that, you realized that you were not as competent, shall we say, in legal writing as you would like to be, and then did you just Google around to find my class? How did you do it?

KEITH: That’s exactly what I did and there were very few.  And, I wasn’t sure that they were in the right ballpark.  And then when I arrived at Legal Writing Launch, I read your initial details, and then I watched your opening video and I went, “Okay, this is what I need.” And so, it was pretty clear to me this was the right thing and then when we spoke the first time, I knew it was the right thing.

BEV: OK, so let’s talk about that. First of all, you’re not quite done with the program yet but even being two-thirds of the way done, do you feel like it’s changed your writing back at your firm where you’re working?

KEITH: Yeah, I do. Very much so. I think there’s a point where you ultimately then just need repetition, that’s the other thing. It’s like anything, if you write one motion and then don’t write another for three months you’re not going to move forward. It has to become like anything; learn the basics but then you have to do it.

 BEV: It’s the muscle that you want to keep working.

KEITH: Yeah you do. You have to build it and because you won’t be perfect overnight, no one is. It’s a process but once you’ve got the basics then you can go back to your notes and say, “I can start here, this is how I work.” But of course, every time you will make mistakes but hopefully as you progress you make fewer ones.

BEV: What’s your takeaway about the basics that you now bring to everything that you write?

KEITH: Because you work on the principle of CRAC [Conclusion, Rule, Analysis, and Conclusion], which I think has made a huge difference so that I understand how to start with a mixture of law and facts, an opening—what is the sentence that you describe it as?

BEV: Topic sentence with a mix of law and facts—first conclusion.

KEITH: So, you’re stating very clearly what your position is before you start opening it out. I think also then, which as you know something I’m frequently guilty of, is falling from active voice into passive. And it’s just perhaps cultural because of where I come from and the way we use English. But adapting to that active voice strategic thinking of subject, verb, object. And it’s those principles that I’m trying to hold on to as I work.

BEV: When you’re working, are you then editing your work and saying, “Here’s a couple of issues, have I developed them separately and completely? Have I used CRAC on each issue in a separate power-packed paragraph?” You’re . . .  monitoring yourself for that.

KEITH: Yeah, I try, and I hope I’ll just get better at it. . . .

BEV: Yeah, and that’s all you can do and it’s interesting. It’s sort of like constantly flexing that muscle and remembering one of the things I stress, too, is the importance of the editing process. It’s one thing to blurt everything out on the page.  But it’s another thing to refine it and as you review it, to be looking at each paragraph, as we said, making it a power-packed paragraph that contains CRAC on a single issue or a single element. So, you’re just hyper-organized.

KEITH: Right, yeah.

BEV: . . . Then the kinds of things that we’re doing in the course, like demand and opinion letters and memos and motions and ultimately an appellate brief, is that the kind of thing you’re doing in your litigation practice?

KEITH: Yeah, it’s the thing I’ve been asked to do. It’s primarily memos. It’s taking a piece of law that they want some information about or they want some kind of case authority on that that can back up an argument. So, it’s that kind of work primarily. I hope it will expand into other things and that I’ll get more use out of all the skills. 

BEV: Do you feel if you had Legal Writing Launch, even just the electronic version of it, before you started the LLM, that that might have heightened your knowledge within the LLM program? That would have helped you?

KEITH: Yeah completely. It goes without saying. It’s like having an advanced set of skills that I just didn’t have. You stumble around a lot in your first term really trying to make sense of how to present things and why things are written in a certain way. Yeah, it would have been a real plus.

BEV: How about for the Bar? Do you think that would have been helpful, too?

KEITH: It would have been helpful anywhere, there’s no doubt about it. It would have been helpful anywhere. Certainly, for the Bar in the same way—to have known that, that’s the best way. Because then I would have written my essays more like that and the lawyer examiners would have liked it more, probably. . . .

BEV: It’s not a small thing when you go into a Bar Exam, and I do suggest that people take this [legal writing online course] before they go into a Bar Exam. Obviously, they need a Bar Review Curse, but they should follow whatever the Bar Review Course folks tell them about how you set forth the rule or however you’re supposed to do it. This is not a substitute for that, but this is a supplement to that, and [Legal Writing Launch] teaches you a way to fully develop an issue.

BEV: On the Bar, of course, there is the Performance Test Exam.

KEITH: Correct. And this was a mystery to me what they were talking about and the admission of just that the fact that we hadn’t been informed that the Performance Test fundamentally is a legal writing test. That’s what it is. 

BEV: Right.

KEITH: And it is 20 percent of the Bar. And it requires you to know many things, whether a persuasive brief or an objective memo or so forth. And Kaplan even presents classes on this.  But at no point . . . everyone presumes you’ve done legal writing somewhere, step one in the JD.  So no one’s accommodating the LLM’s and saying, “Oh, by the way, you might not have done any of this.”

BEV: Well, don’t assume that the JDs have that kind of experience.

KEITH: No, sure.

BEV: Again, this is why I developed this [legal writing course] to help people before they go to law school or before their first summer internship or their first real job, even as JDs—because they just don’t have the experience yet. So, here’s a way to be writing those kinds of documents that they will be writing and that they can be comfortable with. And you’re right, the students I’ve had who’ve taken the Bar two and three times, failed it, and then took Legal Writing Launch, this Assignment Editing, Zoom mentoring that you and I are doing, they certainly wish they’d had that beforehand. Because, as you say, it’s very similar to the assignments on the [Bar Exam] Performance Test.

KEITH: Yeah, completely.

BEV: Is there anything else that you would like to add about your experience in the LLM or your experience with Legal Writing Launch and it’s helping you in terms of your practice?

KEITH: I think it’s really worth me saying it’s essential and unfortunately no one said to me, “This is essential. This is basic if you want to be a lawyer.” I certainly thought I don’t want to be spending my time writing; I want to be in court. I want to be doing really . . .  exciting things. But there is no way. There’s no legal profession without this. And so I think, foolishly for me, it didn’t dawn on me that this was an essential element to being able to practice and so you go through a legal career without it and a really good foundation in it. So, as you say, if JDs don’t have that, if they haven’t been taught well enough or if they’re not comfortable with it, it will hold them back [in] their profession and [passing] the Bar if they’re sitting the Bar. So, there is a case to say [Legal Writing Launch] will be valuable before going to law school; it would be valuable during law school; it would be valuable post-law school.  [Legal Writing Launch will also be valuable] . . . when studying for the Bar, before the Bar and then, in my case, after the Bar when you realize you haven’t got the skills. There’s no place [this legal writing course] isn’t valuable because ultimately you need it.

BEV: But we have all these different kinds of students: we have students who are going into law school, we have students before their first internship, we have students before their first job, people who have failed the Bar. Actually, the biggest number of students we have right now are new lawyers and new JDs. . . .  So, I think that’s a testament to what we’re saying: that we can’t assume that they had that kind of [legal writing] experience in law school. Really what should be required [in law school] would be a legal writing course, an advanced legal writing course, and probably some type of internship or a job and some way that it’s actually a clinical program, where [students are] being supervised by experienced lawyers in writing these kinds of documents. You really just don’t have that and that’s why I developed Legal Writing Launch. To help people to gain their confidence and basically develop a minimal level of competency, where they know what these documents are, they know how to write them, they know how to spot issues and develop them separately. And then also the significant emphasis on, I would say basic grammar, but it’s not even basic grammar it’s actually a little more sophisticated grammar—grammar for the legal profession. Then when students finish [Legal Writing Launch] and we give them a Certificate of Completion, then we know that they have that minimal level of competency.

KEITH: Yes.

BEV: I agree with you, I think that’s essential to the practice of law. Why wouldn’t you have that? Why wouldn’t you?

KEITH: I don’t know what other schools do. I know that UCLA in the first year of JD Legal Writing is mandatory and they have to do that. I don’t know if that’s true of all schools and I don’t know if it goes beyond the first year.

BEV: Mostly. Mostly it’s just in the first year. It might [be] in the first two quarters, so a full-year course. Sometimes it can be a one-semester course but what I’m saying is what we’ve developed here in Legal Writing Launch, or I should say I’ve developed here at Legal Writing Launch, is the ways to master these types of skills: the issue spotting, as well as the development of it in an organized analytical way, including counter analysis. . . . [For] most students, [when I receive their] first assignment, they give me a mishmash of the issues.  [T]he whole goal is to unfurl them and show them how to develop each one distinctly and completely. And that solid level of grammar that is so important to our legal profession.

Anyways, thank you so much Keith. I really appreciate your time and I look forward to your finishing up our Course and you’re staying in touch with me so that you’re not a stranger.

KEITH: Absolutely. It’s lovely to see you and I will finish the Course, and I will speak to you very soon.

BEV: Okay, sounds good. Thanks Keith.

**End of Interview**

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