How to Turn Lawyers into Better Writers

Side profile business woman sitting at desk in her office working on a laptop computer, typing with alphabet letters flying up

By and large, lawyers fall into two camps: those who won’t admit their writing needs help, and those who don’t realize it.

Set aside your ego. It’s time for some introspection and, hopefully, action.

Be Honest With Yourself

Good legal writing is not about using a lot of words or complex terminology. Instead, it is about how well your audience comprehends your message.

1. Consider Your Education.

Yes, you are well educated and academically accomplished. But Nancy Hupp, a former transactional lawyer who now works as a freelance writer and writing coach, believes your stellar education can actually work against you.

When teaching writing to first-year law students, Nancy observed

Law students believed they knew the rules of grammar, and they did well enough academically to make it into law school. So they concluded that they were good writers.

Being grammatically correct, however, does not always translate to effective or compelling writing.

Unfortunately, says Nancy, legal education often furthers the problem.

Students learn proper citation form and how to compare and contrast cases for a memorandum or brief. But they often have little, if any, instruction on drafting a well-structured agreement or comprehensible letter that is also legally sufficient.

It doesn’t help that law students spend their days reading legal writing that is often verbose, stilted, and chock full of legalese. Basically, your education does little to help you handle the various types of writing required in daily practice.

Nancy’s solution:

Lawyers must make a concerted effort to unlearn certain writing habits from school to increase clarity when communicating with clients.

2. Consider Your Professional Responsibility

The law is, at its core, a communications profession. As such, Nancy argues that you have the professional responsibility to both know the law and communicate it clearly to your intended audience. This involves more than using good grammar and being comprehensive.

Nancy also notes that some lawyers think legal concepts are too complex to be conveyed simply — confusing complicated text with thoroughness. While many legal concepts are complex and hard to convey, lawyers must make an effort to do so. Too often, clients are neither informed nor impressed with an attorney’s writing.

Nancy points to numerous studies from disciplines outside the law that identify factors impacting a reader’s comprehension.1 Word choice, sentence structure, paragraph length, and formatting considerations such as type size, font type, and white space can all play a role in helping a reader comprehend a message.

Take Steps to Improve Your Writing

1. Acknowledge That You Can Improve

Before you can change your writing habits, you must first acknowledge that you can become a better communicator. Determine what your trouble spots are based on what peers and clients complain about and issues you “write around.” Ask those who read your writing for input and actually listen to their comments. From there, you can make an actionable game plan.

2. Spend Adequate Time

Legal writing requires correct grammar and accurate substance. But effective legal writing also communicates a message clearly and concisely. Not surprisingly, good writing is a process that involves more than just putting pen to paper:

  • Planning: Before you begin writing, take a moment identify your audience and your purpose. Consider both when planning your message, formatting, word choice, etc. Take notes and create outlines to keep you focused.
  • Writing: Permit yourself to write uninhibited. Allow the words to flow.
  • Editing: As Nancy says, “No one’s first draft is their best effort. I don’t care if you’re Ernest Hemingway. It just isn’t.” Set aside just as much time for editing as you do for writing. Include proofreading as part of your editing process.2

Moreover, spend time on a regular basis improving your writing. Start with mastering one or two of your particular challenges. Perhaps this includes eliminating wordy phrases or sentences that start with “There are ….” Or it might include refreshing your memory on comma rules. Spending just a few minutes a day will, over time, show results.

3. Enlist Help

No matter how hard you try, you will never catch every error that may exist in your work product. Even professional writers use editors. A third party can edit, proofread, or even simply ask questions on unclear passages. A fresh pair of eyes on your work is invaluable—trust me.

4. Find and Use Tools

No one said good writing is easy. But no one said good writing is impossible either. It requires you to be willing to improve, practice, and use the proper tools to make steady improvements.

Create a Short Editing Checklist

By creating a checklist of items to look for in every piece, you create a system that will eventually help you conquer your bad habits. Create this list for yourself or for your editor.

Use Technology

Microsoft Word has built-in spelling, grammar and readability statistics to help you identify potential issues and errors. Set up templates to experiment with appearance (think headings, subheadings, white space, bulleted lists, and more).

Install free editing tools such as Ginger or Grammarly to augment your word processor’s tools.

Read Go-To Resources

Read about writing style. Educate yourself on what readers find helpful. If you don’t know where to start, track down these resources and keep them at hand:

Attend Continuing Education Courses for Writing

These can include CLEs, courses offered through writing organizations such as The Loft Literary Center’s Writing at Work Program in Minneapolis, as well as resources from your local college.

Hire a Writing Coach

A writing coach can give targeted, one-to-one attention. Working with a tutor or coach can help you identify issues, devise solutions, and make greater improvements over a shorter timeframe. Share the fun; ask a coach to come to your workplace and tailor a class for you and your colleagues.

Discover the Great Writer Within

Not all lawyers are born writers. And not all writers are English majors. I was a sociology and political science major. Nancy was a science major. But here we are, writing for a living and encouraging others to find the great writer within. While we will never claim to be perfect writers, we each take seriously the challenge of communicating clearly. Step up and take that challenge with us.

Originally published February 11, 2015. Republished August 12, 2016.

Featured image: “Cheerful successful reporter working at office desk with fists raised.” from Shutterstock.

  1. See, e.g., Maneesh Agrawala et al, Design Principles for Visual Communication, 54 Comm. ACM 60 (2011), and Ruth Anne Robbins, Painting with print: Incorporating concepts of typographic and layout design into the text of legal writing document, 2 J. ALWD 108, 110 (2004), available at 

  2. If you are unsure about the difference between editing and proofreading, visit the University of North Carolina’s Writing Center


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  • All of the above is maybe 10% of becoming a better writer. It’s nice, but it’s icing. Not cake.

    The only sure fire way to become a better writer is to write more. Do that, and the rest tends to work itself out.

    • I think you’re both right. Obviously step one is to write a lot. But most lawyers already do that, and there are plenty of people who write a lot but are still terrible writers.

      I think the most important thing on Cari’s list is actually to get help. Everyone does need an editor.

      • Paul Spitz

        Which is really hard for solos or 1-2 person firms. When I worked in a larger firm, anything I wrote would be reviewed at least once or twice by a senior associate, and then once or twice more by a partner. Now I’m on my own, and there’s nobody else to read my drafts.

        I am supervising some law students in a practical clinic, and they sent me a memo that contained various typos and grammatical errors. I explained (gently, I hope) that the “first draft” they submit to a senior associate or partner is never really a first draft. It should always be edited at least once or twice before being given to someone else to review. Better they hear it from me than from a supervisor in their first real job.

    • That last 10% is the difference between a mediocre writer and a great writer.

    • Writing more is necessary, but not sufficient – we’re all writing more than ever (emails, blogs, comments, texts) but you’d have a hard time finding anyone who would say the quality of writing overall has improved. It’s the difference between mere repetition and deliberate practice. To write well, you can’t just write – you have to also read (a lot), identify areas where your writing can improve, and seek out feedback that will help you change your writing. A writing coach can definitely help with that.

      • It’s important to read, but what you read is more important. If you consistently read bad writing, you might pick up bad habits. Read a lot, and learn to recognize the bad versus the good, and try to learn from both. It’s also important to know your medium and target audience. Writing a brief is completely different than writing a blog post.

        • I disagree. You can learn a lot from bad writing. Study it. Figure out why it’s bad and how you can make it better. By studying bad writing, you can recognize the bad writing of your own.

  • Paul Spitz

    I hate seeing documents with words like “hereof” and “thereof” in it. I often try to remove them, but that creates the problem of removing one word and having to replace it with three or four words. I feel that I’m pitting brevity against legalese.

  • 55YearBroncoFan

    “Plain English for Lawyers” by Wydick is a helluva book on legal writing. Read it! It will set you free of your legal writing shibboleths. It’s for sale online.

  • Three suggestions: have someone read your brief aloud to you. Your ear will pick up what your eyes may pass over. If possible, let at least a day go by between edits. And pay attention to how the brief looks. Ugly can offend the reader.

  • Jennifer Romig

    I have taught legal writing in law school and coached lawyers on their writing for a number of years. I agree with most of what has been said, but would hope that the learning process is maybe not so much “unlearning” as building on basics, adapting them to more advanced situations, adding new kinds of writing to your repertoire, and learning when to break the “rules.”

    But my main point is actually to add one more idea: Lawyers should study and imitate excellent legal writing. They can find general examples through the Burton Awards and the Greenbag Almanac, and they should seek out and study the writing of great legal writers in their practice area and their community. It helps to discuss the examples in detail, either with a coach or colleague or writing mentor. The idea is to go beyond “wow this is great” and get into what exactly makes it so great. And then the payoff comes by writing something new in the structure and/or style of the great example. This is not to say a lawyer would immediately file a motion written just like some other example. Of course not. But the practice of imitating excellent writing helps a writer gain new ideas and techniques for how to approach future projects. (Credit: One source for this method is Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, which the English majors among us might enjoy reading.)