Law students and newly graduated lawyers constantly have legal writing on their minds, especially those who serve on a law review! Throughout law school and early in your legal career, it’s important to regularly review the fundamentals of legal writing so you don’t make avoidable mistakes. In the guest post below, Ashley Heidemann, Founder of JD Advising, LLC, shares some legal writing do’s and don’ts. A big thanks to Ashley for contributing to the Scholastica blog!
In this post, we outline five important “Do’s” and five “Don’ts” that you can follow to improve your legal writing. These tips will help you avoid mistakes that we frequently see students and lawyers make in their legal writing.
1. Start early and make a plan. If you start your legal writing assignment early, you will have time to write a high-quality, polished product. So, do not wait until the last minute to start your legal writing assignment! Make a conscious decision to start early. But don’t just stop there. You should also make a writing plan. The day that you are given an assignment, you should write down a goal or milestone that you want to accomplish each week. For example, you may want to have your research started by Week 1, completed by Week 2, and have an outline for your legal writing assignment finished by Week 3. Setting weekly goals is much better than simply telling yourself, “I’m going to get started.” Without specific goals or items to check off your to-do list, it is easy to put a legal writing assignment on the back burner!
2. Remember your audience. Who are you writing for? Are you writing a letter to a client to explain the legal issues in her case? Are you writing a persuasive brief to a court? Are you writing a memorandum for your boss? Remember who your audience is, as this will determine the format and style of your document. Cater every word that you write to your audience.
3. Write in shorter sentences and paragraphs. Shorter sentences make it easier for the reader to pay attention. Further, shorter sentences make it easier for the reader to remember key takeaway points. If your paragraphs are long or if your sentences are rambling, the reader will quickly become bored and frustrated. Even worse, the reader may gloss over your main points! So, to make your main points stand out, and to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for the reader, keep your sentences short and to the point!
4. Use transition words. Make it easy for the reader to follow your line of reasoning. Use words like “moreover,” “in addition,” and “however” to introduce paragraphs. This helps your final product “flow” and it makes it easier for the reader to follow. It also makes your writing look less choppy and more cohesive.
5. Use the active voice. In active voice, the “subject” of the sentence is doing the action and the “object” is affected by the action. An example of active voice is, “The boy threw the ball.” The subject (the boy) is doing the action (throwing the ball). In contrast, in passive voice, the object becomes the subject. Active voice is easier to read. It keeps the reader’s attention and it also gets to the point. Thus, the majority of your writing should be in active voice. (Note: Sometimes the passive voice is appropriate– e.g., if you want to deflect attention away from the subject or actor, such as your client. But, it should be used strategically in legal writing.)
1. Don’t assume the reader knows the law. Instead, assume that the reader does not have a detailed knowledge of the law. Explain the law clearly and concisely. It is your responsibility, as an advocate, to ensure that the reader comprehends the law. If you clearly articulate the law, the reader will be able to better understand the points you are making. This makes your writing more effective. (Note that this applies to legal writing assignments, and it also applies when you are writing a memorandum for your boss, or an argument that will be read by a judge!)
2. Don’t use contractions. An example of a contraction is saying “isn’t” instead of “is not.” In legal writing, you should avoid contractions. Rather than saying, “the defendant wasn’t at the scene,” it is better to say, “the defendant was not at the scene.”
3. Don’t state your personal opinion without backing it up with authoritative law. The reader is not particularly interested in what you think. The reader is interested in whether you have a sound legal argument to support your position. For this reason, you should be careful of the word “I” and other personal pronouns. Do not state, “I believe that…” Instead state, “In light of the case law, it is clear that…” Making the habit of avoiding personal pronouns will help you to use law, rather than opinion, to make your arguments.
4. Don’t forget to self-edit. Many students do not do a thorough read-through of their final draft before submitting it. This is a big mistake. You should read your final draft from top-to-bottom before you submit it. During this “final check,” you should ensure your draft is clear, organized, and grammatically correct. If you are writing an assignment for your professor, you should make sure that the document complies with all instructions exactly. This will not only earn you more points, but it is also good “real world” practice as some courts set strict guidelines for briefs and motions. These courts will often not accept a brief or motion that does not follow specified guidelines exactly. Note that this is also why it is important to start early–so you can dedicate time to this final check!
5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you are a law student, your legal writing professor is there to help you! If you have any questions, set up a meeting with your legal writing professor. Make sure that you go into the meeting with specific inquiries, you will get more out of it and the professor will appreciate that you are properly prepared.
Ms. Ashley Heidemann is the founder of JD Advising, a bar exam and law school tutoring company. She graduated as the #1 student in her class of over 200 students at Wayne State University Law School and received a top score of over 180 on the Michigan Bar Exam. Her website can be found here.