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 . . . .

Semicolons: Not so Useless

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“How useless is the semicolon?”

A lawyer once asked me this question (emphasis in the original) and proceeded to offer three points in support. First, he said, a period can fulfill some of the semicolon’s functions, and second, a comma can fulfill the rest. Third, people abuse and confuse semicolons enough that we’d be better off without them. Well, I had to concede some of his points. But I was determined not to let “Mr. Useless,” as I’ll call him, get the better of me. No. I believe lawyers, as professional writers, have legitimate uses for the semicolon. Here are four.

1. Semicolons can separate independent clauses.
An independent clause has a subject and a verb and could be a sentence by itself. We can separate independent clauses with a period—as I had to concede to Mr. Useless.

We do not object to the amount of the fees. We ask that the amount not be disclosed to the public.

But a period between independent clauses says, “Full stop. New idea.” A semicolon between independent clauses says, “Pause; related idea.”

We do not object to the amount of the fees; we ask that the amount not be disclosed to the public.

So, Mr. Useless, the semicolon gives the professional writer another option—another tool for connecting ideas.

2. Semicolons separate phrases in a series when one or more of the phrases has internal commas.
This is a useful function more lawyers should apply. When you have three or more phrases in a series, you normally separate them with commas, which tells readers where each phrase ends. But when one of the phrases has commas within it, readers can get lost. In those cases, use the semicolon as a “super comma.” A basic example:

I have a sister in Princeton, New Jersey; a sister in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and a brother in Great Falls, Montana.

Contract drafters should get to know this semicolon. The modifiers and qualifications that appear in contract language sometimes result in sentences like this:

All other details as to format, title, time, and manner of production, of price, publication and advertisement, and the number of, and distribution of, editorial review and free copies will be left to the discretion of the Publisher.

Got that? It’s better with semicolons acting like super commas:

All other details as to format, title, time, and manner of production; price, publication, and advertisement; and the number and distribution of editorial-review and free copies will be left to the Publisher’s discretion.

And that, Mr. Useless, is something a period or comma can’t do.

3. Semicolons separate the items in a numbered list.
This isn’t so much a rule as a convention in legal writing. When you write a simple, textual list or series, you separate the items with commas—as I again had to concede to Mr. Useless. For example:

When arguing a case to the jury, remember to maintain regular eye contact, keep your argument short, and close with a challenge.

But in legal writing, once you number the items, semicolons become conventional, even though commas would also be correct:

When arguing a case to the jury, remember three things: (1) maintain regular eye contact; (2) keep your argument short; and (3) close with a challenge.

Semicolons are even more conventional when you tabulate the numbered list.

When arguing a case to the jury, remember three things:
(1) maintain regular eye contact;
(2) keep your argument short; and
(3) close with a challenge.

Why quarrel with convention, Mr. U?

4. Semicolons separate the authorities in a string citation.
Simple enough, and it’s one we already knew: Moran v. Adler, 570 S.W.2d 883, 888 (Tex. 1978); Heien v. Crabtree, 369 S.W.2d 28, 30 (Tex. 1963).

And you can’t use periods or commas for that, can you, Mr. Useless?

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What I wish I’d known about legal writing

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1. I wish I’d known that law was a writing profession.

I came to law school thinking law practice was an oral profession. I pictured myself in court, making an argument to the jury or to the judge. I pictured myself seated across the table from another lawyer, negotiating a deal. I pictured myself in my office, meeting with a client to give advice. Sure, lawyers do those things.

But mostly, they write.

Lawyers are professional writers. They get paid to produce quality written work that is subjected to serious scrutiny. I wish I’d known that.

2. I wish I’d known that becoming a good legal writer would take years.
I thought I was a good writer in college. I also thought the basic training I received in law school would enable me to write well in practice. I was wrong.

In Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, he reports on a theory of developing expertise. The theory suggests that it takes 10,000 hours to develop expertise in a particular area. If the theory is right, it certainly applies to legal writing. So if you work 2000 hours per year, and 1000 of those hours are spent writing, becoming an expert legal writer would take you 10 years. That’s a long time.

But it’s not enough to just do the skill for 10,000 hours. You need to work at it—study, learn, and implement what you’ve learned. If you don’t study your craft—if you just write on auto-pilot—it’ll take you more than 10,000 hours. And if you write for fewer than 1000 hours per year, it’ll take you more than 10 years. It could take you 15 or 20. I wish I’d been aware of that long haul.

As an aside to the law students and young lawyers reading this, may I say that I sometimes hear from senior attorneys that law students and young lawyers are ineffective legal writers. This bothers me because it’s unrealistic to expect high-quality legal writing from novices who have spent far fewer than 10,000 hours practicing legal writing. I believe these often misguided complaints arise from two causes: First, some complainers are not expert legal writers themselves and are not in a position to fully judge expert legal writing. Second, some complainers have forgotten how ineffective and inexpert their own legal writing was when they were novices.

So hang in there, young lawyers.

3. I wish I’d known that time pressure would be a significant obstacle to good legal writing.
Law is a busy, demanding profession. Many lawyers feel compelled or are compelled to take on more work than would be ideal. The heavy workload impinges on effective legal writing.

Let’s take editing as an example. If your writing is less than expert, it might be because you don’t know how to edit. Or it might be because you know how to edit, but you’re too lazy to edit. But most often it’s probably because although you know how to edit and you’re hard-working, you don’t have time to edit. Editing is what makes weak writing good and good writing great. But in a busy law practice, careful editing often has to be sacrificed.

4. I wish I’d known about the best sources on good legal writing.
I didn’t own a book on legal writing until I quit practicing law and began teaching legal writing. How could that be? If I’d studied journalism, I would’ve known about and acquired books on writing style. Likewise if I had studied English composition. But I finished law school and entered a writing profession without a single source on legal writing in my library. Sure, I read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. I read On Writing Well by William Zinsser. But I read no books on legal writing.

Given what was available when I graduated from law school in 1989, I wish I’d had these sources:

  • The Texas Law Review Manual on Usage and Style
  • A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, by Bryan A. Garner
  • How To Write Plain English, by Rudolf Flesch

Somebody should’ve given me one of these as a graduation gift.

Ultimately, I simply wish I had taken the skill of legal writing more seriously. You’re forewarned.