Tag Archives: legal writing

I get paid to do this…in reverse.

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Practice Tip #10: Keep it short

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On writing, from the Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, page 25: “Edit yourself.”

Really. Do it. If you don’t, someone else will have to edit your work for you, and that’s, well, embarrassing.

Further, shorten your sentences.

After I write a brief, I go back and re-read it, concentrating solely on matters of style. I read each paragraph to see if it has a topic sentence. I read each sentence to be sure that it is no more than three and one-half typed lines long. (The average reader can keep the beginning of a sentence in mind for only three and one-half typed lines. If the sentence runs on for five or six lines, the reader will lose his thought and be forced to go back and re-read the beginning of the sentence. This is no way to persuade.)

What are you as a lawyer if not a persuader? So go back to that sentence or paragraph you loved, the one where you waxed eloquent for several pages, and cut it down. Find the passive voice, and replace the verb “to be.”

No one will complain for having to read less to get the same point.

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Law Practice Tip #8: Make things easier to understand

“No one will ever complain about your writing making something easier to understand.”

That’s how you should try to write, whether its for a partner, a judge, or your client. Simple, clean, articulate, and careful. No one has to read what you write, and it doesn’t take much to distract the reader to something else. Keep their attention. Each sentence should draw the reader further into the story. Er, the brief.

Ever feel like the writer of the brief you just read  (or worse, wrote) was purposely making things more difficult than they were? Calvin and Hobbes aside, Today’s practice tip comes from Tad Radford, former Guardian science editor, letters editor, arts editor and literary editor. He lays down the “25 Commandments,” ostensibly for journalists, but just as applicable for legal writers (or any writers, for that matter).

Some of my favorites:

5. Here is a thing to carve in pokerwork and hang over your typewriter. “No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand.”

15. Words have meanings. Respect those meanings. Get radical and look them up in the dictionary, find out where they have been. Then use them properly. Don’t flaunt authority by flouting your ignorance. Don’t whatever you do go down a hard road to hoe, without asking yourself how you would hoe a road. Or for that matter, a roe.

For the legal writer, go order a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary andDictionary of Modern Legal Usage. They’ll strengthen your vocabulary and deepen your abilities, not to mention complement your writing.

19. Beware of long and preposterous words. Beware of jargon. If you are a science writer this is doubly important. If you are a science writer, you occasionally have to bandy words that no ordinary human ever uses, like phenotype, mitochondrion, cosmic inflation, Gaussian distribution and isostasy. So you really don’t want to be effulgent or felicitous as well. You could just try being bright and happy.

A close cousin to #19 is #20:

20. English is better than Latin. You don’t exterminate, you kill. You don’t salivate, you drool. You don’t conflagrate, you burn. Moses did not say to Pharaoh: “The consequence of non-release of one particular subject ethnic population could result ultimately in some kind of algal manifestation in the main river basin, with unforeseen outcomes for flora and fauna, not excluding consumer services.” He said “the waters which are in the river … shall be turned to blood, and the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink.”

If there is one thing I never grow tired of laughing at is lawyers’ over-use, or abuse, of Latin. Heck, or by non-lawyers with delusions of grandeur.  It rarely strengthens an argument and it definitely doesn’t make you sound smarter.

That’s not to say there are not any times when it’s appropriate, but they are few and far between. The few times that it is actually useful are when the phrase has entered the English lexicon as a phrase commonly understood (or at least among lawyers). For example: the phrase ‘habeas corpus.’ It doesn’t actually help to say “you have to have the body”  when we all know that it has a specific legal meaning, specifically bringing a  prisoner before a court to ensure that their detention is not illegal.  You just say “a habeas corpus petition” or a “writ of habeas corpus.” (Or Great Writ, if you really want to sound pretentious.)

So, check your Latin at the door and say what you mean–in English, the language we all speak. Don’t say ‘sub judice’ when you can just say “before the court.”

My favorite of Radford’s writing commandments is on expanding your abilities through reading:

22. Read. Read lots of different things. Read the King James Bible, and Dickens, and poems by Shelley, and Marvel Comics and thrillers by Chester Himes and Dashiell Hammett. Look at the astonishing things you can do with words. Note the way they can conjure up whole worlds in the space of half a page.

Amen. I especially like Dashiel Hammett. And no one plays a Dasheill Hammett character like Humphrey Bogart. Pick up a copy of “The Maltese Falcon” when you get a chance. “It’s the stuff dreams are made of.”

Find Radford’s full “manifesto for the simple scribe” here.

(h/t Guardian)

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Law Practice Tip #4: read “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law”

Whether you’re a newly minted lawyer or a third year associate, a solo practitioner or one of hundreds in a national firm, you should regularly  review of the basics of practicing law. Research, writing, presentation, argument, and knowledge of the law are just tools of our trade, and keeping them sharp is as important to our practice as  it is for any carpenter sharpening chisels, saws, and blades.

This month I am reading the short and handy “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law” by Mark Herrmann. With quick, practical, and to the point tips on everything from how to write a clear and concise brief to the etiquette of voice messages, it has proven, so far, to be both a delightful and refreshing reminder of the basics of legal practice, not to mention a good laugh.

Some examples:

  • The Ten Most Common Mistaken Assumptions Made by New Lawyers (including #10: “So long as it’s clearly marked “DRAFT,” no one will care if it’s incomprehensible.”)
  • What They Didn’t Teach You in Law School (I found this particularly interesting, and I might someday add some bits of it here)
  • The Curmudgeon’s Law Dictionary (including this definition of Business Development: “Playing golf with old college buddies. As in: ‘Of course I charged the firm for my business development trip to Scotland.'” Or this one for Will Contest: “A judicial procedure in which disappointed legatees attempt to prove that their beloved testator was drunk, incompetent, or unduly influenced at the time the estate plan was made.”)
  • The Curmudgeon on Clients, wherein the Curmudgeon reminds us that we are not in the legal industry, but the service industry, and it is our job to make clients’ lives easier.
  • And so on…
Pick it up. Published by the ABA or available online at Amazon, it’s worth your read, both for the chuckles and the real, and very practical, advice for success as a lawyer.

Are you a good writer? Could you be a better writer?

“As a colleague of mine once put it, ‘I never met a man who didn’t think he was a great lover or a lawyer who didn’t think he was a great writer. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they’re deluded.’”

Theodore L. Blumberg, The Seven Deadly Sins of Legal Writing 1 (2008). (Hat tip to Wayne Schiess.)