Legal writing pros share their top writing tips
After graduating law school and passing the bar, “professional writer” was likely not the role you were envisioning for your career. While that wasn’t the plan, and it isn’t your literal title, you may spend your days crafting complaints, motions, and pleadings. You know you can do it, but if you had your choice, you might not spend so much time on writing. But as an attorney, what you create can’t be mediocre – it needs to be remarkable.
While some attorneys find that writing comes naturally, others find it to be more of an obligation than an art. No matter where you fall on that spectrum, there’s one common denominator: You can make it easier on yourself. Whether writing is your friend or foe, there are methods you can implement to make the process smoother, more efficient, and ultimately, less laborious.
And exactly how do you do that?
Writing is like many other aptitudes – a skill you can hone. Consider it continuing legal education requirement. Take a few minutes on a regular basis to read up on it. Then retain the tips and tricks you read in blog posts like this and implement them into your drafts.
Start by just paying attention to how you write. Whether you’re aware of it, you probably have a process. A way that you start, a way that you think, and a way that you know it’s done. Are you an outliner? Are you the antithesis of an outliner? Do you just get everything out of your head onto the paper as quickly as possible and revise later? Or is every sentence deliberately and carefully constructed?
Knowing how you work best gives you the ability to recreate those environments and situations rather than experimenting each time. Even elite performers don’t simply rely on their innate talents. They are in tune with how they do what they do so well.
Listen to the advice of others
If you’re constantly striving for betterment, even if you have a tried-and-true routine, learning from others is a good place to begin.
We asked some of our own attorneys, attorney editors, and legal writing experts to share their best writing tips. They each have reflected on their writing process and are aware of what works best for them. Their suggestions may be just what you need to alleviate any writing-related tension you feel when drafting a discovery request.
“Conduct your research before drafting your brief or memorandum. Having an overview of the law as well as the specific authorities necessary to support your arguments prior to writing is more effective and less time-consuming than drafting the memo and then attempting to locate the necessary cases.
Not only is it easier to mold your facts into the existing law, but you are spared the possibility of having to desperately search for authority to support a proposition which, if it does not exist, may require rewriting of the paragraph(s) or worse, jettisoning the entire argument.”
“My leading tip would be: Drown out the outside world and be alone with your document. We live in a world of distractions, and distraction is the enemy of good writing.
My distraction-mitigation method is, I shut down any extraneous apps and programs, then don my headphones and crank up loud music to be alone with the words. It’s noisy, and it involves hammering out my research findings into crude bullet points until every key piece of the puzzle fits into one bullet point or another. Next, I drag the bullet points into a logical order.
Then, I walk away from the document and stew a little while. It gives me time to think of any angles I’ve left out. Once things have simmered appropriately and I’m satisfied that I’ve covered the angles, the headphones go back on, the music gets loud, and I refine the bullets into sentences and paragraphs.”
“Know your audience and their objective. A memo drafted for a partner who needs to set litigation strategy is a very different document than an appellate brief arguing your client’s position to the court. Understanding how each will be used is critical to making sure that you produce the best product. The most effective documents are the ones that make it easy for the audience to act. Tailoring your writing to that end will make your document stand out and, when appropriate, make your position more persuasive.”
“Legal persuasive writing is as much about storytelling as it is about using the facts and relevant law to persuade the fact finder. Develop a theme or storyline with a clear beginning (outline of the facts, both good and bad) middle (why your facts support a certain legal finding) and end (the action you want the fact finder to take).
You can’t change the facts of your case. Acknowledge the weaknesses (every case has them) and then persuade the fact finder that they either don’t or shouldn’t affect the outcome. Strive to be a good storyteller with both your good and bad facts.”
“Spend as much (or more) time proofreading and revising your document as you spent drafting it. Proofing your own work product is immensely challenging because after you’ve written something, your brain usually thinks it knows what the document says. This causes you to skim, and read what you think is there rather than what’s actually on the page.
Starting from the end of a document and working backwards will help catch some errors, and taking time away from what you’ve written so you can revisit it later with fresh eyes is also effective. There’s no substitute, however, for impartial and disinterested review.
Whether you use an electronic proofing tool or ask a colleague, this form of revision removes the pride of authorship and memory-bias inherent in you, the drafter. Proofing cannot be rushed; take it seriously and your documents will shine.”
“Enhance your credibility with the court by being objectively persuasive in your writing. Write in short, clean sentences using an active voice.
This may seem obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: Resist the urge to call your opponent names or otherwise get unnecessarily emotional in your writing. Instead, explain why your opponent’s arguments are unavailing by appealing to reason and fairness.
A judge wants to be able to evaluate arguments impartially to get to the correct conclusion under the applicable law. Help the judge who reads your writing do so by being as objectively persuasive as possible while advocating for your client.”
“Write your introduction last. After you’ve written the body, review it and write the conclusion. Then use your outline and your conclusion to make sure your introduction presents each of your issues (in the same order) and the conclusion you are supporting.
This has two purposes: 1) It makes sure your introduction is reflective of the entire document, and 2) It keeps you from staring at your computer in frustration because you can’t think of how to start.”
“Use prior firm work product cautiously. Firm work product can be a helpful source to start your legal research. The problem, though, is that law is fluid and it changes constantly. Don’t begin drafting your arguments without first Keyciting the authority cited within the referenced firm work product. You may find that the authority relied on is no longer valid.
The last thing that you want is to submit a brief or memorandum to a partner for them to find out you didn’t do your due diligence. Firm work product should be a starting point for legal research, but not a substitution.”
“When writing any piece, my first step is creating an outline. I think about what overall question I’m trying to answer and create bullet points to answer that question. Under each bullet point, I add in any supporting information. This could be quotes, statutory materials, caselaw or anything I have discovered in my research. This creates a detailed outline and a solid path to begin writing.
Editing is also a huge part of any writing project, large or small. I firmly believe that no author can adequately edit their own work. It is too easy to read what you intended to say, which is often not what is written on the page.”
Make writing a manageable task
Learning from yourself and others may be the smartest way to demystify the process of writing. Be aware of what you do well and the struggles you often encounter. This self-awareness can be the difference between feeling that writing your next pleading is a burden or merely another item on your to-do list. In turn, you will be more efficient and productive, leaving you additional time to spend on the things that will best grow your practice.