Author Archives: Wayne

About Wayne

Wayne Schiess teaches basic legal writing at the University of Texas School of Law and also focuses on legal drafting, persuasion, and plain English. He is a frequent CLE and seminar speaker on those subjects and has written dozens of articles on practical legal-writing skills, plus four books. He graduated from Cornell Law School, practiced law for three years at the Texas firm of Baker Botts, and in 1992 joined the faculty at Texas. In 2012 and 2015, he was named the law school's legal-writing teacher of the year. In 2011, the Texas Pattern Jury Charges Plain Language Project, for which he was the drafting consultant, was named a finalist for a ClearMark Award by the Center for Plain Language. In 2009, five of his short articles were featured in the Scribes Journal of Legal Writing "Best of" series. In 2007, this legal-writing blog (LEGIBLE) was selected for the ABA Journal Blawg 100: "The best Websites by lawyers for lawyers."

Improving writing—yours and others’

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.”[3]

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.[4]

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.

_____

  1. Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 533 (3d ed. 2011).
  2. 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).
  3. Ken Bresler, Pursuant to Partners’ Directive, I Learned to Obfuscate, 7 Scribes J. Legal Writing 29, 30 (2000).
  4. Anne Enquist, Critiquing Law Student’s Writing: What the Students Say Is Effective, 2 Legal Writing: J. Legal Writing Inst. 145 (1996).

Introducing quotations

Inviting readers to read, not skip, your quotations

Legal writers often need to use quotations in persuasive documents. Quoting a reliable source adds credibility to your assertions and can relieve the reader of independently checking a source. In this column I’ll discuss a technique for formally introducing quotations that can enhance persuasive force and invite readers to read the quotation—not skip it.

But first, two caveats: (1) Legal writing requires scrupulous honesty and care in quoting; misquoting a source, intentionally or accidentally, harms your credibility. (2) Legal writers should avoid over-quoting; use quotations for crucial legal language or to clinch a key point. Otherwise, paraphrase.

And this post isn’t about incorporating a quotation into your own textual sentence, like these examples:

  • The relevant statute states, “[a]ny taxpayer who paid the sales tax has standing to sue for a refund.” [citation]
  • The relevant statute provides that “[a]ny taxpayer who paid the sales tax has standing to sue for a refund.” [citation]

Instead, I’ll address a formal lead-in to a quotation.

A common and traditional way to introduce a quotation is to use a lead-in statement and a colon, like these:

  • The court stated as follows:
  • The statute provides the following:
  • The hearing officer made the following ruling:

These forms are adequate but average. In their place, I recommend introducing the quotation with what we might call an informative or persuasive lead-in by asserting a point the quotation will prove. So don’t write this:

  • The relevant statute provides authorization as follows: “Any taxpayer who paid the sales tax has standing to sue for a refund.” [citation]

Instead, introduce the quotation by asserting a point the quotation will clinch, like this:

  • The Tax Code affirms Granger’s right to sue for a refund: “Any taxpayer who paid the sales tax has standing to sue for a refund.” [citation]

The technique works for block quotations, too. We all know that readers often skip block quotations. According to Mark Hermann, author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, “you must trick the judge into learning the content of the block quotation.”[1] He recommends summarizing the quotation’s substance in the lead-in sentence. And Bryan Garner, in The Winning Brief, offers similar advice: “For every block quotation, supply an informative, eye-catching lead-in.”[2]

So instead of this average lead-in:

  • The State intervened in operating Lincoln County Schools, and the Superintendent thus acted under authority of the Education Code, which states as follows:

The state board shall intervene in the operation of a school district to cause improvements to be made that will provide assurances of a thorough and efficient system of schools. Such intervention includes the authority of the state superintendent to fill positions of administrators and principals. [citation]

Try this:

  • Once the State intervened in operating Lincoln County Schools, the Education Code granted the Superintendent the right to make personnel decisions for the vacant principal positions:

The state board shall intervene in the operation of a school district to cause improvements to be made that will provide assurances of a thorough and efficient system of schools. Such intervention includes the authority of the state superintendent to fill positions of administrators and principals. [citation]

The lead-in asserts a point and, to some degree, summarizes the quotation to follow. With this technique, according to Herrmann and Garner, you’ll get two payoffs. First, readers might read the block: the assertive tone of the lead-in invites them to read the quotation to see if you’re right. Second, even if readers skip the block, they still get the key content.

_____

[1] Mark Herrmann, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law 8 (2006).

[2] Bryan A. Garner, The Winning Brief 501 (3d ed. 2014).

Beginning with “however”?

“My boss [professor, English teacher] told me never to begin a sentence with however.”

I’ve heard this comment a number of times from law students and lawyers, and it’s often followed by a sincere “Why?” In this post I’ll discuss where this advice comes from and suggest that it’s a stylistic suggestion, not a rule.

The most likely source of this prohibition is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Their advice against beginning with however is consistent through four editions: “Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is ‘nevertheless.’”[1] Why that advice? Strunk and White believed that when however comes first, it means “in whatever way” or “to whatever extent.”[2] Here’s a pair of examples that show what they were thinking:

a. However it turns out, the policy will cover the loss.
b. However, it turns out the policy will cover the loss.

In example a, however means “in whatever way,” but in b it means “nevertheless.” What distinguishes the meanings is the comma after however in example b. Apparently, Strunk and White worried that young writers (The Elements of Style is for college students, after all) would include or omit the comma incorrectly, creating an ambiguous however—hence the prohibition. Under the prohibition, when you mean “nevertheless,” you must move however into the sentence and set it off with commas. Here, examples c and d follow the rule against beginning with however, and example e breaks it.

c. The brief, however, does not address personal jurisdiction.
d. The brief does not, however, address personal jurisdiction.
e. However, the brief does not address personal jurisdiction.

Yet in reality, there’s no rule against beginning with however. According to Bryan Garner, beginning with however is “not a grammatical error.”[3] Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage declares that “there is no absolute rule for the placement of however.”[4] And Terri LeClercq says you may “use however in any position.”[5]

So for the meaning “nevertheless” or “on the other hand,” it’s fine to begin with however [plus a comma]. Legal writers can master comma rules sufficiently well to avoid the ambiguity Strunk and White feared. And beginning with however is not only grammatically justified, it has the advantage of signaling contrast for readers immediately, rather than later in the sentence. For example:

g. We closed the deal on Thursday. However, the payment arrived on Friday.

Of course, you can also place however mid-sentence to create desired emphasis, as we saw in examples c and d above. Just be sure that if you use a pair of commas, however isn’t separating independent clauses, which would require a semicolon and comma.

h. Right: We closed the deal on Thursday. The payment, however, arrived on Friday.
i. Right: We closed the deal on Thursday; however, the payment arrived on Friday.
j. Wrong: We closed the deal on Thursday, however, the payment arrived on Friday.

Example j is a run-on sentence or comma splice, an error I occasionally see in legal writing. Of course, you could use but in these sentences and simplify the punctuation while punching up the transition. In fact, if there’s a stylistically justified reason to avoid beginning with however, it’s that however is a heavy, multi-syllabic transition.

k. We closed the deal on Thursday, but the payment arrived on Friday.
l. We closed the deal on Thursday. But the payment arrived on Friday.

So if your boss or professor tells you not to begin with however, think of it as a stylistic suggestion—but one you’re required to follow. Otherwise, place however where it creates the emphasis you want, even if that’s at the beginning. And consider but.[6]

_____

  1. William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, The Elements of Style 48 (4th ed. 2000).
  2. Id. at 49.
  3. Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 415 (3d ed. 2011).
  4. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage 515 (1994).
  5. Terri LeClercq, Expert Legal Writing 180 (1995).
  6. Wayne Schiess, Beginning with But, Austin Lawyer 11 (July/August 2013).

Obituary: WITNESSETH

Witnesseth, Confusing, Long-Lived Legal Archaism

The word witnesseth, a legal term used in deeds, contracts, and other formal documents, passed away Monday after a decades-long decline and what some say were well-deserved attacks. Those close to the word said it died in a legal form pulled up on a smart phone in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was 587 years old.

One of the most enduring Elizabethan archaisms, witnesseth’s late decline represented a steep fall from its heyday. It rode high on the fear of “changing the form” for more than two centuries. It prospered despite challenges, such as one raised in 1744, when a legal scribe first asked a lawyer, “what is this word, and why are there spaces between the letters?”

The deceased in a recent photo.

Witnesseth maintained its entrenched position in legal documents, although it was more and more often relegated to land deeds, until at least 1957, when a busy real-estate lawyer in Waukeegan, Illinois, inadvertently left it out of a draft deed, which a secretary dutifully typed up. Yet the real-estate transaction closed without incident, and witnesseth began its slow decent.

Rumors persist among some hostile to witnesseth that the reports of its death are premature and that it is lying low in old formbooks and county real-estate filings, waiting to be recognized and used again.

All 12 Tips for Concision

Since July 2015 I’ve been sporadically posting a series of tips for concision in legal writing. I suggested a total twelve, and links to all of them are collected here:

1. Don’t fear possessives.

2. Remove redundancy.

3. Diminish sesquipedalian vocabulary. (Reduce big words.)

4. Cut throat-clearing phrases.

5. Eliminate excessive prepositions.

6. Deflate compound prepositions.

7. Omit needless details.

8. Edit for wordiness.

9. Make independent clauses participial phrases.

10. Use pro-verbs or elide verbs.

11. Assess passive voice.

12. Revise unnecessary nominalizations.