Manage your sentence length

What’s a good average sentence length for legal writing?

I once asked a group of lawyers at a CLE seminar that question. “Thirteen words,” one lawyer volunteered. “Seven,” said another. Wow. Writing about legal matters with an average of seven words per sentence isn’t realistic, is it? That means for every sentence of ten words, you’ve got to write one of four words to bring the average to seven. That would be tough.

But the instinct is right. Steven Stark, author of Writing to Win, says the more complex the material, the shorter the sentences should be. So what’s a more realistic goal? The experts say between 20 and 25 words:

  • below 25—Wydick in Plain English for Lawyers
  • about 22—Enquist & Oates in Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for the Legal Writer
  • about 20—Garner in Legal Writing in Plain English

How do you know your average sentence length?

You can program Microsoft Word to tell you. In Word 2010 and 2013, go to File > Options > Proofing and look for “When correcting spelling and grammar in Word.” Now check the box for “Show readability statistics.”

You’ll also be required to check the box for “Check grammar with spelling.” If you dislike running a grammar-check every time you run a spell-check, go into the grammar settings and uncheck as many boxes as you like. You’re telling Word to stop checking for all those grammar items—it gets most of them wrong anyway. (For more on using grammar checker wisely, see Customize Word’s Grammar Checker from the October 2012 Austin Lawyer.)

With those settings, when you finish a spell-check you’ll see a display that includes the average sentence length. Of course, the tool isn’t perfect. If you have citations or headings in your text, Word will think those are sentences—short sentences—and your average sentence length will be artificially low. To work around this problem, select a paragraph or group of paragraphs without headings or citations and then run the spell-check; do it three times in different places. This will give you a sense of your average sentence length.

If your average sentence length is in the 30s, or even the high 20s, you’re taxing your readers. Do a thorough edit for concision and efficiency. If your average sentence length is in the teens, well done. You’re pleasing your readers. And remember, average sentence length doesn’t mean uniform sentence length. You should vary your sentence length. Write some short sentences and some longer ones.

How long is too long?

We lawyers have a reputation for long sentences. It’s probably not all our fault. After all, the subject matter of most legal writing lends itself to qualifications, modifiers, asides, and lists—so we might be forgiven. Yet I’m sure we can do better. Here’s a suggestion: Decide on a maximum sentence length and promise yourself you’ll cut any sentence that exceeds your maximum. For example, mine is 45. I’ve decided that when a single sentence I’ve written exceeds 45 words, it’s an automatic edit.

Of course, some gifted writers can create long sentences that are pleasant to read; they usually use long but perfectly parallel phrases in a series. Or they use lots of semicolons. It can work in literature and, occasionally, in law. But for most of us doing legal writing, long sentences are hard to read and hard to follow. So avoid over-long sentences.

In managing sentence length and avoiding over-long sentences, it’s not practical to count words while you’re typing. Instead, manage sentence length on the edit. As you read your writing, keep an eye out for any sentence that fills three or more lines of text or any sentence that just makes you tired. Use your cursor to select that sentence, and Word will tell you the word count at the bottom left of your screen. For me, if it’s more than 45, it’s an automatic edit.

So that’s the advice. For readable writing that doesn’t tax your readers, vary your sentence length, seek an average in the low 20s, and cut any sentence of 45 words or more.

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Using Reflexive Pronouns—by Yourself

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Plenty of smart people make mistakes with reflexive pronouns, so it’s worth reviewing their correct use.*

First, let’s list them: The reflexive pronouns are

  • herself
  • himself
  • itself
  • myself
  • oneself
  • ourselves
  • themselves
  • yourself, yourselves

Second, let’s take a little quiz. Which is correct?

1. If you have any questions, please call Alexis or myself.

2. According to the will, the property is to be divided equally between yourself and Mr. Hill.

Well, it was a trick. Neither is correct. Let’s discuss the two rules for reflexive pronouns, and we’ll come back to these two sentences later.

Rule one: Use a reflexive pronoun for the object when the subject and object are the same.
This is simpler than it sounds, and writers rarely, if ever, make mistakes in using reflexive pronouns in this way. For example:

3. Megan accidentally cut herself.

Here the subject, Megan, and the object, herself, are the same person, so the reflexive pronoun is correct. If you wrote Megan accidentally cut her, readers would assume that her was another person, not Megan. One more example:

4. Even though Daniel is an attorney, he should not represent himself.

Here, the subject of the main clause is the pronoun he, and the object is the reflexive pronoun himself, but the two refer to the same person, Daniel.

Rule two: Use a reflexive pronoun if the subject or object is repeated for emphasis.
Here, the reflexive pronoun has an antecedent (earlier reference) in the sentence, and the sentence would be grammatically correct even without the reflexive pronoun. For example:

5. Craig testified that the bag was green, but he had not seen it himself.
6. Veronica decided to draft the interrogatories herself.

In both these examples, the sentences would be correct and would still have the same essential meaning without the reflexive pronouns:

5a. Craig testified that the bag was green, but he had not seen it.
6a. Veronica decided to draft the interrogatories.

But the reflexive pronouns add emphasis; they intensify the meaning. In fact, pronouns used this way are also called intensive pronouns. These pronouns can also intensify by repeating the subject, as in these examples:

7. Mr. Fowler himself must register the name change.
8. The senator herself wrote me a letter.

Again, these sentences would be fine without the reflexive pronouns:

7a. Mr. Fowler must register the name change.
8a. The senator wrote me a letter.

But the emphasis would be lost.

Now let’s return to our quiz. In both sentences, the writer (or speaker) isn’t following either of the rules just described. Rather, the writer seems to be reaching for a formal tone or a serious-sounding word:

1. If you have any questions, please call Alexis or myself.
2. According to the will, the property is to be divided equally between yourself and Mr. Hill.

Grammatically speaking, the more formal, serious-sounding word is wrong, and these sentences should use me and you:

1a. If you have any questions, please call Alexis or me.
2a. According to the will, the property is to be divided equally between you and Mr. Hill.

With example 1a, it’s even possible that some writers are engaging in what’s called “hypercorrection.” Gun-shy from years of being corrected for saying things like You and me should go to Jed’s house or Rosanna and me are planning to visit Spain, these speakers practice me avoidance. Here’s the apparent thought process: Whenever I say “Rosanna and me,” I get corrected, so I’d better do something else. I’ll try “Rosanna and myself.” (In the hypercorrected sentences involving Jed and Rosanna, the correct pronoun is I.)

Hypercorrection means “trying so hard to be right that you’re wrong.” Don’t hypercorrect yourself. (By the way, that sentence has an implied subject of you, so it’s correctly using the reflexive pronoun.) You yourself can use reflexive pronouns correctly.

*I am indebted to Susie Salmon for the idea to write about reflexive pronouns: Susie Salmon, Me, Myself, and I: How to Talk about Yourself, Arizona Attorney 14 (Oct. 2014).

Parallelism Basics

When you write a list or series, the elements should be in parallel form. If they’re not, you have “faulty parallelism.” For proper parallelism, here are the rules:

  1. Each element in the list or series flows naturally from the lead-in, and
  2. Each element in the list or series begins with the same part of speech (verb, preposition, noun, and so on).

Here’s an example:

a. A lawyer must disclose adverse authority that is known to him, arises from the controlling jurisdiction, and that was not disclosed by opposing counsel.

If we tabulate (put each element on its own line), we can easily identify faulty parallelism:

b. A lawyer must disclose adverse authority that
-is known to him,
-arises from the controlling jurisdiction, and
-that was not disclosed by opposing counsel.

Example b has flaws in both requirements. The third element doesn’t follow from the lead-in: that . . . is, that . . . arises, that . . . that. And the first words of each element aren’t the same part of speech: is and arises are verbs; that is a pronoun.

Consider two ways to fix it. First, you could repeat the lead-in word (that) each time:

c. A lawyer must disclose adverse authority that is known to him, that arises from the controlling jurisdiction, and that was not disclosed by opposing counsel.

It works, but it’s a little heavy on the use of that. Second, you could revise so each element begins with a verb:

d. A lawyer must disclose adverse authority that is known to him, arises from the controlling jurisdiction, and was not disclosed by opposing counsel.

Now the first word of each element fits the lead-in and all are the same part of speech. We have parallelism.

Whenever you write a list or series—typically with three or more elements—practice parallelism. It’s consistent and logical, of course, but it also reduces miscues and eases reading by creating balance and consistency. Opportunities for pleasing parallel structure are common in legal writing and can take many forms:

  1. A simple list: We can send the client an e-mail, a letter, or a memo.
  2. A series of phrases: Writers create emphasis by repetition, produce clarity with simple words, and enhance persuasion through clear organization.
  3. A series of clauses: The trial judge granted summary judgment, the appellate court affirmed it, and the Supreme Court reversed it.
  4. A numbered list, like the one you just read. (Note that each numbered item began the same way.)

Another form of basic parallelism that recurs in legal writing is the use of correlative expressions, also called correlative conjunctions. The most common are both/and, not only/but also, either/or, and neither/nor. In these pairs, A and B should be the same part of speech: both A and B, not only A but also B, either A or B, and neither A nor B. For example:

e. Many lawyers are not only smart but also think creatively.
f. Many lawyers are not only smart but also creative.

Example e isn’t parallel: not only smart (adjective) but also think (verb), and the faulty parallelism makes it clumsy. But example f is parallel, making it shorter and giving it force. Here’s one more example:

g. She testified that she made neither a withdrawal nor did she make a payment.
h. She testified that she made neither a withdrawal nor a payment.

Example g is faulty because what follows neither is an article and noun (a withdrawal) but what follows nor is a verb (did). Example h is parallel, producing a shorter and more forceful sentence.

Short and forceful, balanced and consistent—these are the rewards of parallel structure.

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How to write an e-mail memo

By tradition, when lawyers write a legal analysis for internal use or as a decision-making tool, they write a memo. Today, many memos are e-mail messages. When you ask for an e-mail memo or when you write one, what guidelines do you follow? I propose some here, but it’s important to know your audience. Reject any of these guidelines if your boss prefers something else.

Keep the length down—if you can.
No one likes to read long e-mail messages. Try following the “no scrolling” or “one screen” rule: Readers get everything they need without scrolling past the opening screen. Sometimes a longer message is necessary, but it can still be efficient and effective if you front-load key information. More about front-loading below. Of course, you could write a short message and attach the longer memo, but before you do, check with the assigning lawyer. Some lawyers dislike reading attachments, and attachments don’t always display well on tablets or phones.

Remember: a more concise piece of writing is often harder to produce than a long one. Give yourself time to condense and tighten.

Use the subject line to give key information.
For a short, single-issue e-mail memo, I recommend writing a condensed, specific subject line that states the answer. You save the reader time and effort, and besides, legal readers appreciate knowing the answer before they get into the analysis. This suggestion just takes the idea a little further.

It’s not always possible or practical to put the answer in the subject line. Maybe it would be too easy for others to see; maybe your boss doesn’t like it; maybe you have three answers to report. If your work environment or your boss dictates that you don’t put the answer in the subject line, then just write something specific—think summary, not merely topic.

Restate the question asked.
The first line of the body text should restate the question. In fact, I like the opening phrase “You asked . . .” Provide enough detail—facts and law—to accurately frame the question, and avoid abstraction. If there are multiple questions, number them.

An e-mail memo that assumes the reader knows what was asked and that skips right to the answer has two drawbacks: it’s frustrating for secondary readers, who’ll have to scroll through the thread to find what was asked, and it’s frustrating for the assigning lawyer who’s reading the e-mail days or weeks later.

Give the answer with reasons in one paragraph.
Write a thorough answer with reasons, thus ensuring that the body text is complete, easily understood if isolated from the other parts of the message, and readily copied and pasted into other documents. The answer with reasons also serves as critical front-loading in a longer message. You can write a single, short paragraph—three or four lines of text, or you can write the answer and give the reasons in bullet points. If there were numbered questions, use parallel numbering for the answers.

State the governing law but skip the case explanations.
A traditional memo states the legal rule that governs the question, and an e-mail memo should too. Be accurate and concise: name important statutes (“Under Insurance Code § 22.001 . . .”), refer to important cases by shorthand (“According to Lone Pine Mfg. . . .”), and mention the jurisdiction (“In Texas . . .”). But don’t clutter the text with formal, full-form citations.

A traditional memo also explains the cases that have construed and applied the law—illustrations that give readers a concrete understanding of the law. But there’s usually no space for that in an e-mail memo, so leave it out.

(Yet writing explanations is excellent practice for new lawyers and ensures a better understanding of the law. If you’re a new lawyer, go ahead and write careful, clear, concise explanations. Just don’t put them in the e-mail memo. Write them and save them somewhere. They’ll often come in handy later.)

Analyze as needed.
Support your answer by explaining why the law leads to a particular result in your case. Expand on the reasons you gave, but be succinct and concise. Get quickly to the core concepts and eliminate background and build-up. Keep the analysis to just a few paragraphs if you can.

Other guidelines
If the body text is long, divide it and insert headings to enable skimming (Issue and Answer, Summary of Law, Impact on Client). Consider including, at the end, full citations for the relevant authorities, and even summaries, if your boss wants them. And treat e-mail message that provide legal analysis as formal writing; avoid a casual or informal style.

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Ultimately, treat e-mail memos as serious pieces of legal analysis that deserve thorough research, clear writing, and careful editing. Remember that your e-mail can and will be forwarded to clients, to other lawyers, and to the hiring committee.

 

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Yes, I’m a Lawyer

Do you ever lie about your profession? Seriously. When someone asks what you do for a living, do you always say “I’m a lawyer”?

I do, of course. And I always sign my name with esquire. Even on checks. And I insist that everyone call me counselor.

Wife: Do you want any more salad, counselor?
Me: Nothing further at this time.

But there was a time when I didn’t want my membership in the bar to be the first thing a stranger learned about me. Often, I’d just as soon downplay my job—though I admit it took me a while to learn how. When I first came out of law school, I’d routinely do this:

Stranger: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a lawyer. Or attorney. Strictly speaking, the distinction between the terms is disappearing at the present time. Moreover, there are the terms barrister, solicitor, and counselor, inter alia. Nonetheless, any and all of said terms can be utilized by laymen to refer to one who holds, possesses, or retains a juris doctorate.

That usually got a bad reaction.

But it wasn’t just my choice of words. I soon began to realize that as a lawyer, I wasn’t beloved by all. After a few years of law practice, I began to see that people had preconceived notions about lawyers and that telling someone I was a lawyer wasn’t always a good way to start off the relationship. So I fudged.

That was hard to do when I practiced law at a law firm. What could I say? But as a newly trained lawyer, of course, I was able to talk around the truth. That’s what they taught me in law school, right?

Stranger: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a . . . well . . . what do you do?
Stranger: I’m a nurse. And you?
Me: I’m in finance. . . . I work with banks . . . lending . . . that sort of thing.

That was true, at least partly.

I didn’t say I represented the banks as a lawyer. I didn’t say I sued borrowers. I didn’t say I prepared for filing original petitions directed to defaulting debtors. That could come later, after the stranger had seen I was a decent person.

On the other hand, how decent was it to fudge on the truth in our first conversation? Still, I justified it. It was better than getting the typical reaction—usually something like this:

Stranger: An attorney, huh? My brother-in-law’s an attorney—a real jerk, too.

Or this:

Stranger: No offense, but I’ve had enough of attorneys for a lifetime. My ex’s attorney was a real jerk.

Yes, the “j” word came up a lot.

So when I got into academia as a legal-writing instructor, I took full advantage of the chance to obscure my profession. I started telling people I taught writing. Just “writing.” Not “legal writing.” That way I could pass myself off as an English teacher. Cool. Besides, try explaining legal writing, and you usually get a snide remark.

Me: I teach legal writing.
Stranger: So you’re the one who teaches them to write like that.

I still had awkward moments and lessons to learn. I found out that fudging about your profession didn’t always go smoothly. Once, I told someone I was a “writing instructor,” but she heard “riding instructor.”

She: Oh, it must be challenging working with those animals.
Me: Yeah . . . I guess . . . .
She: You always have to let them know who’s boss, right? Use the whip if you have to, I suppose?

But I’ve matured. I’ve learned to accept my profession—and to shrug off the critics. Now, in my 23rd year of teaching, I’ve abandoned the equivocating. I’m finally able to tell the truth. I’m proud to be a lawyer—a legal-writing instructor. So when asked, I now say what I feel, from my heart:

Me? I’m a legal-writing instructor. As a field, legal writing comprises drafting, advocacy, and expository analysis, though that three-pronged regime is subject to critique on the ground that it is not comprehensive. Furthermore . . . .