Lawyers are editors, and not only of our own work—we often edit others’ writing. An edit that improves the writing is great, but a good edit can also improve the writer. So lawyers are teachers, too. How are we doing? It’s mixed. In this post I’ll mention three recurring problems and offer some suggestions.
“I get no writing feedback.”
Lack of feedback is understandable. Lawyers are busy, and getting the document done is more important than helping junior lawyers improve their writing. And junior lawyers should be responsible for their own improvement, right? Yet without even minimal feedback, it’s hard to improve.
There are no easy solutions to this recurring problem. As Bryan Garner noted, “The modern … well-managed law firm has more work to do than it can complete in a given time.” Sometimes what’s lost is teaching—including teaching writing. So granting that it will be difficult, I still urge junior lawyers to ask for feedback, and senior lawyers to try to give some.
“The writing feedback I get is wrong.”
I occasionally hear this from former students, and I’ve even written about it. It’s great that the senior lawyer is editing the document and offering feedback, but sometimes the junior lawyer disagrees with the edits or believes they’re bad writing. What to do?
Junior lawyers, always to do your best to meet your supervisor’s expectations, even if you disagree with them. I often quote legal-writing teacher Ken Bresler: “I teach legal writing. I don’t run a job-placement service. Write how they want you to write.”
And before you assert that your boss is mistaken, look it up. Both younger and older lawyers often rely on rules and conventions they vaguely recall from high school or college. But there are several authoritative, comprehensive legal-style references available. Here are three:
- Bryan A. Garner, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style (3d ed. 2013)
- Joan Ames Magat, The Lawyer’s Editing Manual (2008)
- Deborah E. Bouchoux, Aspen Handbook for Legal Writers (3d ed. 2013).
Of course, in legal writing, a senior lawyer’s practical knowledge and insights can outweigh a technically correct writing choice, but consulting an authoritative reference promotes consistency and raises everyone’s writing IQ.
“The writing feedback I get is useless or mean.”
Given how busy lawyers are, it’s not surprising that editorial feedback is sometimes vague or unkind. Yes, junior lawyers should develop a thick skin and try to learn from the comments. But senior lawyers can also be more helpful. Three suggestions.
First, sending back a track-changes version in which you rewrote the document the way you like is better than no feedback at all, but not much. If that’s all you have time for, fine, but some level of feedback is desirable. (For a junior lawyer who isn’t getting feedback, finding the senior lawyer’s final version and preparing your own track-changes document is one way to learn.)
Second, if you give feedback, try to avoid cryptic or vague comments and harsh or personal criticism. Cryptic comments are often abbreviations or vague descriptors: “nom.,” “BB,” “I can’t follow this,” or “Needs work.” They’re usually unhelpful. Harsh criticisms are often labels: “Terrible!” Or they address the writer, not the work, often assuming the writer is sloppy or lazy, not merely inexperienced: “Is this the best you can do?” or “Next time, run a spell check.”
Third, if you can make the time, try these best practices for writing feedback as identified by Anne Enquist:
- Provide at least some positive comments so the writer knows what techniques work and can repeat them.
- Write comments that not only identify concerns but also suggest ways to address them.
- If you have time, provide a short summary of the strengths and weaknesses in addition to line-by-line comments.
Being an editor and a teacher takes effort—and time, which lawyers don’t always have. But try these tips to avoid the biggest problems.
- Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 533 (3d ed. 2011).
- Wayne Schiess, What to Do When a Student Says, “My Boss Won’t Let Me Write Like That,” 11 Perspectives: Teaching Leg. Res. & Writing 113 (Spring 2003).
- Ken Bresler, Pursuant to Partners’ Directive, I Learned to Obfuscate, 7 Scribes J. Legal Writing 29, 30 (2000).
- Anne Enquist, Critiquing Law Student’s Writing: What the Students Say Is Effective, 2 Legal Writing: J. Legal Writing Inst. 145 (1996).