Mastering the art of legal writing is essential to the development of any newer lawyer.
Young lawyers can forget that the way you present an argument is almost as important as the substance of that argument. If you spend all your time researching and finding relevant statutes and then neglect to build your facts into a cohesive and readable narrative, your analysis and argument will be drowned out. Before you can perfect your writing, you must first understand that legal writing is a skill that you’ll need to continue to work on throughout your career. If you ask any long-practicing attorney, they will tell you they’re still working to refine their writing abilities. Although your three years of law school are sure to give you a good foundation, it’s up to you to build on that foundation and be willing to learn and improve.
Write an Outline
Writing an outline is the essential first step to most forms of writing. An outline will not only give your writing needed structure, but it will also give you a roadmap for writing your first draft. Even if you’re in a time-crunch, you should always take the time to create an outline. Before writing your outline, you should think of your overall argument and the individual points you want to make. When writing your outline, remember to make sure that each paragraph flows into the next one.
Know Your Audience and the Assignment
Before you start writing, be sure you fully understand the assignment and know the expectations of your client. Not all forms of legal writing are the same, so you shouldn’t have a one-style-suits-all approach to every assignment. Writing a motion is different from writing a client report or mediation statement, so your tone and writing style should vary based on the assignment, the audience, and the client.
Legal writing is the art of clear and concise persuasiveness. You want to convey your ideas in a very direct manner that can be easily understood by the intended audience. In order to deliver your information in the clearest possible way, you want to cut out any legal jargon that may make your writing more ambiguous or difficult to read. Using more legal jargon just because you can doesn’t make your writing more authoritative. Always state your case in as few words as possible—every sentence and every word you use should add something. Try to avoid repetition and eliminate unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.
Make Your Argument from the Start
No matter what type of writing you’re working on, you should always state your argument or conclusions at the beginning. By starting your memo or motion with a summary of your key points, you let your reader know what they should look for and set a basic frame of reference. If you open your memo or brief with a long and winding introductory paragraph, you may lose your reader before they even get to your conclusions. Similarly, if you just state facts without letting the reader know what your argument is, those facts won’t have context and will end up feeling almost meaningless. In order to make your argument coherent and persuasive, walk the audience through your thought process in a clear, understandable manner.
Don’t Be Afraid to Rewrite
Regardless of what you’re writing, your first draft should never be your last draft. First drafts are great for getting your ideas down on paper and figuring out the general focus of your argument. Sometimes, it takes multiple drafts to find the right language, the right structure, or to figure out the most convincing way to make a point. If you have the time, it can also be helpful to write a draft and then sit on it for a day or two before going back to edit it. This will give you fresh eyes when reviewing your own work and ensure that you don’t just gloss over the same mistakes.
Proofread, Proofread, and then Proofread Some More
Spelling and grammatical errors are never excusable, especially with spellcheck and the other web tools at your disposal. These errors will shift the focus away from the content of your argument to the laziness of your writing. As insurance against committing these easily avoidable mistakes, you should proofread your work at least two or three times before handing it in. Try read your work product out loud at least once. Reading it out loud will help you identify and fix awkward transitions, clunky phrasing, and other mistakes. If you want to go one step further, ask a colleague to review it for you. Having someone else read your writing never hurts, and they may be able to find errors that you missed.
As you look to improve your legal writing, you should always be receptive to feedback and read the work of experts or senior partners in your same practice area. Try to take note of the tone, structure, and writing style they employ and implement what you believe works for them in your own writing. Nonetheless, keep in mind that all forms of legal writing are not the same and the most skilled experts also went through a learning process. Ultimately, there are no shortcuts to improve your writing. Like any other skill, becoming a good legal writer takes a lot of experience and a serious commitment to continued improvement.