Four Fundamentals of Excellent Legal Writing

Good writing doesn’t rely on tactics.

It’s not one size fits all.

It’s regularly something that senior lawyers say you should master, but don’t execute well themselves.

And it’s certainly not found by using high school “rules” (such as “don’t start sentences with the word and”).

So what are the main areas we need to consider if we’re going to excel as lawyers in our drafting?

excellent legal writing

#1 – Purpose

How many legal letters have you read where the point was lost in a sea of irrelevant mud?Click To Tweet

Before putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, or mouth to dictaphone there is a core element that you must consider: its purpose.

What’s the point of the thing that you’re writing?

Is it to inform? Advise? Demand? Explain?

I can’t think how many letters I have read (and, probably, written in times past) where the point of the letter was lost in a sea of irrelevant, unnecessary mud.

Determining your purpose in advance minimises the chances that you’ll lose sight of the forest for the trees.

So don’t just start producing.

Instead:

  • pause;
  • think;
  • articulate.

#2 – Audience

You don’t always know that much about your audience, but for many lawyers it doesn’t matter: they would write the same no matter what.

Personally I think that’s a lost opportunity.

Knowing your audience and what they care about is a huge chance to score some points.

Is it a client that values detailed explanations, or snappy answers?

Does this judge have vast experience in Taxation law, or none?

Is it the opposing lawyer you’re writing to, or really their client?

Of course the answer isn’t always a single person. Sometimes a letter might be written both for your client and for the other lawyer. Perhaps it’s for the mediator but also for the other lawyer’s client to consider.

Determining your primary audience and taking into account their context will give your legal writing a huge boost.

#3 – Tone

Tone is perhaps the hardest element for many young lawyers to master. It’s also the part that can drive them a bit crazy when I edit their work.

“Chris – why did you change it this time when you let it go through last time?”.

It’s because of the combination of audience and tone.

Think of tone this way: it’s the language you use to create the emotional response that you desire.

Are you seeking to be:

  • conciliatory
  • bullish
  • aggressive
  • demanding
  • non-responsive
  • casual
  • chatty
  • formal
  • determined
  • dismissive?

There are many options, and your tone is what’s going to affect the feeling that people get when they read your letter.

Of course, as with audience, you need to be careful about who you’re targeting and the impact it’s going to have.

#4 – Brevity

Brevity will be informed by Purpose, Audience and Tone.

Your legal writing should only be as long as it must be once those three things are accounted for.

And then it should stop.

Happy Lawyering!

 

  • Hi Chris. I just love this article. Thanks for articulating (see what I did there?) the essential elements of good legal writing so well. And in such a pleasant tone. And with such clarity.

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