Monday, January 4, 2010

Plagerism and the Law

In school you get constantly reminded of the dire, nay evil, violation that is plagerism. And there is good reason for that - you need to be evaluated for your own work, not for how well you select the work of others.

That this continues into law school is particularly funny to me now that I am a lawyer. The reason for this is that once you are actually practicing law (and really doing any sort of legal research), plagerism is not only allowed, it is heavily encouraged, and in fact, the practice of law would grind to a halt without it.

Whenever you have a brief to write or a research memo to write, or whatever else you need to write, the normal practice is to first find out if someone has written on the same or similar topic in the office and, if so, copy as much of that as you can. No attribution is made to the original author of the material. You appropriate it, often alter it as little as possible (to save time), verify the law is still good, then you sign your name to it and send it out. To the world, it is your document, with only you as the author, but of course the reality is that you might have only written a small portion of it.

This makes a great deal of sense - why reinvent the wheel if you don't need to. Not every issue will have something you can cut and paste from - you do still have to do your own original research, and unless you are working on something from the same case, you will have to make a lot of changes after you cut and paste. So original writing ability is still important - but what is probably equally important from a practical point of view is the ability to quickly find old material that you can use to cut and paste from. Even if you have to alter it greatly, it gives you a starting point and saves a ton of time.

Thus, you need to learn to write on your own, and that's why plagerism is so heavily frowned upon in academia, but in the real world, plagerism is a way of life, and in a good way. I just find that highly amusing. Maybe there should be room in school for you be be evaluated for not only your original work, but how well you steal the work of others - after all, that will be a needed skill when you graduate!

1 comment:

Spirit of the Season said...

And not just copying from people within your firm.

Portions of various motions that our firm has filed on a particular subject have been copied and refiled by other firms without any attribution.

And I, too, confess to copying parts of others' pleadings that I know have survived demurrer.

And, you're right, it's pretty funny.