Tip of the Week: The Art & Style of Legal Writing

This week’s post was written by our friend Chelsea Wilson of Washington University School of Law. She takes a look at the art and style of legal writing and provides a clear, succinct guideline for your writing in both formal and informal situations.  Enjoy!

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For many legal writers, the first exposure to the art and style behind legal writing comes from reading court documents, case books and books on the practice of law. Legal books often shape the writing style of law students and new attorneys, and contact with a wide variety of legal writing styles will help any writer develop and improve his or her technique. To help ensure you produce the best work possible, ask yourself a few questions before you begin any legal document or correspondence:

Who is Your Audience?
First and foremost, you must know your audience. Before you sit down to draft a letter, write a brief or respond to an email, ask yourself, “Who is my audience?” The answer to this question will help guide you as you determine the appropriate tone, structure and content for what you are writing.

What is the Most Appropriate Tone?
Like all aspects of the practice of law, legal writing is a persuasive endeavor. In any document an attorney or legal professional writes, the goal is to advocate for a client and ultimately reach a specific outcome. Because persuasion is the goal in legal writing, the tone of the writing is something that deserves careful attention. Most often, legal writers aim to strike a professional and persuasive tone without being aggressive.

The difference between being persuasive and being aggressive is something many unseasoned legal writers struggle with. Here are some tips for avoiding an aggressive (i.e., unreasonable or illogical) tone in your writing:
• Take a step back. Finish your first draft and then walk away. Come back to your piece a few hours later and read it with a fresh eye. Does the argument still hold up? Is the tone rational?
• Ask for a second opinion. A trusted friend or colleague can review your work to make sure the tone is not too aggressive or off-putting.

Where is the Document Going?
The tone of the piece addresses who is going to be reading it, but where it is going is just as important as it will impact the structure of the writing. An email can be written in a less formal tone and there are fewer rules about structure. However, a brief or a motion that will be submitted to a court must follow very strict structure guidelines.

Guidelines for the structure of legal documents are established in part by the rules of civil procedure, as well as the local rules and any guidelines set forth by the judge or department who will ultimately be reading the document. For example, many courtrooms limit the length of certain briefs or provide rules on format and citation.

For documents that are not being submitted to the court, such as pre-litigation settlement demands, correspondence with co-counsel or opposing counsel, or communication with an insurance adjuster, you will find there are less specific guidelines, but considering your recipient is just as important. If you are unsure what guidelines to follow for your intended recipient, ask a colleague or supervisor for an example of work that has been done for that recipient previously.

Ultimately, you want the reader to understand your argument and to persuade them that you are correct. So, no matter where your document it going, it should include accurate citations (if applicable), a clear voice and an authoritative tone.

Is the Document Concise?
One complaint that is regularly made about novice legal writers is that their documents are unnecessarily wordy. It’s important when writing about legal matters to say what you need to say and be done with it. The goal is to be persuasive on your client’s behalf; you don’t want to lose your reader’s interest with long-winded or verbose writing. Be considerate of your reader’s time and get to the point.

Using these questions as a guide, you can ensure your writing will be well received, and you will set yourself up for success as a legal writer.

Chelsea Wilson is the Community Relations Manager for Washington University School of Law’s distance learning LL.M. degree program, @WashULaw. Washington University School of Law now also offers an online legal English course.

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