We’ve all heard how important good writing skills are, and yet it can be difficult as a law student to understand exactly what that means for your career in the law. How much writing will you really do? The fact is, as a lawyer, you’ll most likely do quite a bit of writing. You may write briefs for other attorneys in your firm or for a judge if you choose to complete a clerkship. You may write memorandums for colleagues. You may write engagement letters for your clients or cease and desist letters on behalf of clients. If you work for a small firm in a small town as I did, you may even end up working on marketing pieces and blog posts.
Legal writing can inform, persuade, argue, intimidate, notify, and serve all kinds of other functions. Fortunately, the mechanics of legal writing are mostly the same regardless of what kind of document you are producing. Here are a few tips to help all of your legal writing stand out.
Organizing your thoughts in a way that has the most impact and is easy to follow is key. How many legal cases have you read where you have to dig through the case, rip sentence apart from sentence, and reread passage after passage to understand what the heck the author is even talking about? Don’t be that writer. Make your case easy to follow. State the conclusion right up front followed by the most important issues you want to emphasize.
The more concise your argument or message, the more readily it can be received. Some people think that if you write using complicated terms and run-on sentences that you will sound more intelligent and authoritative. You won’t. What you will do is alienate your reader. When you’re trying to be persuasive, getting your message across as clearly as possible is paramount.
What does that look like exactly? Here is an example of two sentences. The first is at best wishy-washy and definitely won’t win any serious argument. The second is much more impactful.
- I believe my client is not guilty of the crime for which he has been unfairly charged.
- My client is not guilty.
The second sentence works better than the first, because it’s decisive. It isn’t bogged down by unnecessary thoughts or words. The more concise your argument, the more powerful it is.
Make Your Case
Highlight the most persuasive facts, the most significant legal authority. But, be careful not to get too far away from those major issues. Think of it this way: in fundraising (my current line of work), writers know that effective fundraising writing includes one call to action but never more than three in any one publication. The less the better. We want the reader to get the full brunt of that one ask. If you include too many asks, the reader gets overwhelmed, loses interest, and doesn’t make a gift. The effect is akin to watering down the argument when we really want to concentrate the reader’s attention on the most persuasive part of our argument instead.
The same is true of legal writing. If you give too much attention to minor issues, you risk diluting the impact of your words altogether. Focus on the major issues, and your reader will, too.
Show Don’t Tell
It’s important to remember that when you are writing memos, briefs, letters for your clients, letters on behalf of your clients, or any other professional writing, chances are pretty good that you aren’t writing for your own benefit. There’s a reader, an audience you are expected to engage.
Hands-down, the most effective way to keep a reader’s attention is to ‘show don’t tell.’ If you’ve ever taken a class in fiction writing, you’ve probably heard that saying before. It can be a tricky one to put into practice.
Here’s an example of ‘telling:’
The defendant was afraid for his life. He acted in self-defense.
Now, it might be true that the defendant was afraid for his life. But, this sentence is not compelling. How about this:
The defendant, weighing only 120 pounds, just sat down at the bar. [Right off the bat, we see that the defendant is slim, probably not very muscular.]
The plaintiff, a professional body builder, entered the bar. [Now we can see the difference between the defendant and the plaintiff and infer that the defendant was by far the weaker of the two parties.]
Keep in mind, these sentences expanded on key facts. The trick is to manage “show vs. tell” while also being concise and avoiding highlighting facts not as relevant to your main argument. By showing these important facts, the reader has a much better sense for the defendant’s fear than if the author merely stated the defendant was afraid.
In fiction writing, there is a heavy emphasis on getting the first line just right. How is the author going to hook the reader right from the very first word? But, in legal writing, the conclusion is the most powerful part of the document. Oftentimes the part of your brief or memorandum the reader will remember most is your conclusion.
A strong, clearly stated conclusion can sum up your argument in a memorable way, thus having a lasting impact on the reader. And, when that conclusion is repeated in a format like CREAC (conclusion, rule, explanation of the rule, analysis, and conclusion), it becomes even more memorable.
Leave your reader with a conclusion so strong it will convince them of the rest of your argument without even needing to read it.
Writing Is A Practiced Skill
Remember, writing, like anything else, is a practiced skill. Yes, some people are born somehow knowing how to write intuitively better than others. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve no matter what your competency is in legal writing. All of legal writing can be pared down to the same elements: well-organized, concise, focused, with ample demonstration of key facts and a strong conclusion. Take the time to practice these skills. All lawyers write, but good writing skills will set you apart from the competition.
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