Why quality legal writing is so important

By now, most of you understand that writing is an integral part of being a lawyer.

No matter what area of law you practice, all are writing-intensive, which is why it’s imperative for lawyers to master the ability to communicate effectively through writing.

In realising the importance of legal writing, you also should recognise that the goal always is to write clear, concise and succinct statements.

At all costs avoid the use of improper grammar as well as excessive and unnecessary verbiage.

When writing motions, briefs or even simple letters to opposing counsel or clients, always include known — as opposed to unfamiliar — words; avoid redundant statements that only serve to restate ideas; consider your audience and take the minimal amount of time and space needed to convey your message. (In other words, avoid long-windedness.)

When discussing the art of writing, Mark Twain once said: “If I had more time I would have written less.”

The reality is that good legal writers write short briefs, motions and letters.

Their message and arguments never are lost in long, rambling documents.

No matter how sound your arguments or ideas are, they are of no consequence unless they are communicated effectively.

Younger lawyers, in particular, often are reluctant to admit their writing skills may be deficient; such reluctance keeps their writing skills in a state of deficiency.

Before you pick up a pen or start pounding away at the keyboard, develop a logical and practical order for your writing. Develop an outline, which will allow you to put down your arguments on paper as clearly as possible.

When your work is finished, it’s critical for you to proofread.

Look for grammatical mistakes and spelling errors, and mind the creative flow.

Proofreading is a very difficult skill for some. It is only human nature, when reviewing your own work, to read what you “meant to say” rather than what you actually wrote.

It is always wise to have a fresh set of eyes review your document to ensure the ideas and thoughts you intended actually are included.

Remember, too, when proofreading that it’s a mistake to rely solely on a computer’s spell check or grammar check program, which can lead to embarrassing errors and a less than stellar impression of your legal abilities.

Bad grammar or poor writing style divert attention from the good points you want to make and, consequently, your writing loses its effectiveness.

A good rule of thumb is to keep an actual dictionary and thesaurus nearby, and use them to check everything highlighted by your computer.

It takes some lawyers the span of an entire career to earn the reputation of “quality legal writer.”

One poorly written letter or brief can tarnish that reputation forever.

A number of books are available to assist with your writing endeavours.

One of my favourites is “The Winning Brief,” Second Edition, by Bryan A. Garner. Other helpful resources include: “Modern English Usage,” Second Edition, by H.W. Fowler; “The Careful Writer” by Theodore M. Bernstein and “Modern American Usage,” also by Garner. An investment in one, or in any other writing guide, will be well worth the cost.

Socrates said that “true knowledge exists in knowing that I know nothing.”

It is only when people admit ignorance of a particular subject that they seek information about it, he believed.

As a young lawyer, do not be afraid to say, “I do not know how to effectively communicate my ideas on paper.”

Once you can admit that fact, you can begin the task of learning how to prepare clear, concise and quality legal papers.

Adapted from an article by Langston D. McFadden – a lawyer engaged in the private practice of law with Harter Secrest & Emery LLP (US) who represents both businesses and individuals. He can be contacted at (585) 232-6500. (c) 2008 Dolan Media, all Rights Reserved.

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