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.
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.
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).
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:
- Plain English for Lawyers by Richard C. Wydick
- Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner
- The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
- NIH Plain Language online training
- Grammar Girl blog
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.
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 http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/rules/painting_with_print.pdf. ↩