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."

Lawyer, justify yourself

Some legal writers feel strongly about text justification. Here’s some background and recommendations.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

For legal documents, some lawyers prefer left-justified text, also called “left-aligned” text. Left-justified text creates what’s called a ragged right margin. It looks like this:

Left-justified, ragged right.

Some legal writers prefer fully justified text. Fully justified text creates clean vertical margins on the left and right, and it’s standard in most books, magazines, and professional publications. It looks like this:

Fully justified.

Which is better? The question sparks passionate debates.

In favor of left-justified

Left-justified text looks less formal and “relaxes the page,” according to the legal-typography expert Matthew Butterick. In addition, many legal documents are left-justified, including most contracts, briefs, letters, and nearly all email messages. So left-justification has tradition and history on its side.

In addition, there’s some data suggesting that you can read left-justified text faster than fully justified text. Fully justified text sometimes exhibits “gappiness” because it adds white space that can slow down reading. Look at the highlighted sentences in the next example. See the slightly bigger spaces between words?

Fully justified, highlighting gappiness.

Granted, the difference in reading speed is tiny—fractions of a second—but there you go.

In favor of fully justified text

Fully justified text tends to feel more formal and serious, and that’s one reason professionally printed documents are often fully justified. For example, most books use fully justified text. Formality and seriousness are right for many legal documents, and the clean vertical margins appeal to some legal writers.

And fully justified text is modern: left-justified text is, after all, a vestige of the typewriter, so why not take advantage of the full justification available in word processing?

My recommendations

  1. Left-justified text with a ragged right margin is appropriate for legal documents—subject, of course, to the preferences of your readers and supervisors.
  2. Fully justified text is also appropriate for legal documents—subject, of course, to the preferences of your readers and supervisors.
  3. To reduce gappiness and speed-up reading for fully justified text, turn on hyphenation. The word processor will hyphenate a few multi-syllable words at the right margin.

With hyphenation turned on, the gaps and white spaces disappear. It looks like this:

Hyphenation is appropriate for legal documents. In fact, I’d bet most nonlegal text you read in print is fully justified with hyphenation.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

 

 

Placement matters: Fixing 4 missed chances for persuasion

Here are 4 missed opportunities for persuasion that I see in persuasive legal writing. In each situation, the substance is strong, but the placement isn’t. Because I’m focusing on placement—the location of key content within a paragraph—I’ve used nonsense text so you won’t be distracted or bored reading long paragraphs. Just focus on the green, highlighted text.

1. Missed chance: Relegating a forceful concept from a case to an explanatory parenthetical buried in mid-paragraph.

In pretium lorem sed elit rutrum maximus. Nullam venenatis semper est, et luctus est aliquam at. Vestibulum tempor vitae neque et volutpat. Maecenas commodo laoreet nulla vel porta. Fusce iaculis tortor ut pulvinar eleifend. Ut auctor risus a vehicula efficitur. Flake v. Adams, 123 S.W.3d 456, 458 (Tex. 2011) (recognizing equitable adoption as valid in Texas). In gravida, turpis et ornare gravida, orci quam vulputate urna, id tincidunt lectus ex pulvinar dolor. Proin ac tortor sapien. Sed maximus in sapien quis dignissim. Cras ut leo sed odio maximus euismod ac sed erat.

1a. Why not state the forceful concept in the first sentence and then cite the case, omitting the explanatory parenthetical? (Assuming the concept is actually forceful and important—not merely background.)

 The Texas Supreme Court recognizes that equitable adoption is valid in Texas. Flake v. Adams, 123 S.W.3d 456, 458 (Tex. 2011). In pretium lorem sed elit rutrum maximus. Nullam venenatis semper est, et luctus est aliquam at. Vestibulum tempor vitae neque et volutpat. Maecenas commodo laoreet nulla vel porta. Fusce iaculis tortor ut pulvinar eleifend. Ut auctor risus a vehicula efficitur. In gravida, turpis et ornare gravida, orci quam vulputate urna, id tincidunt lectus ex pulvinar dolor. Proin ac tortor sapien. Sed maximus in sapien quis dignissim. Cras ut leo sed odio maximus euismod ac sed erat.

2. Missed chance: Relegating a forceful quotation from a case to an explanatory parenthetical.

In pretium lorem sed elit rutrum maximus. Nullam venenatis semper est, et luctus est aliquam at. Vestibulum tempor vitae neque et volutpat. Maecenas commodo laoreet nulla vel porta. Fusce iaculis tortor ut pulvinar eleifend. Ut auctor risus a vehicula efficitur. Flake v. Adams., 123 S.W.3d 456, 458 (Tex. 2011) (“Equitably adopted children have the same inheritance rights as biological children.”) In gravida, turpis et ornare gravida, orci quam vulputate urna, id tincidunt lectus ex pulvinar dolor. Proin ac tortor sapien. Sed maximus in sapien quis dignissim. Cras ut leo sed odio maximus euismod ac sed erat.

2a. Why not state the forceful quotation in the first sentence and then cite the case, omitting the explanatory parenthetical? (Assuming the quotation is actually forceful and important—not merely background. And if it’s merely background, why quote it?)

 The Texas Supreme Court acknowledges that “[e]quitably adopted children have the same inheritance rights as biological children.” Flake v. Adams, 123 S.W.3d 456, 458 (Tex. 2011).  In pretium lorem sed elit rutrum maximus. Nullam venenatis semper est, et luctus est aliquam at. Vestibulum tempor vitae neque et volutpat. Maecenas commodo laoreet nulla vel porta. Fusce iaculis tortor ut pulvinar eleifend. Ut auctor risus a vehicula efficitur. In gravida, turpis et ornare gravida, orci quam vulputate urna, id tincidunt lectus ex pulvinar dolor. Proin ac tortor sapien. Sed maximus in sapien quis dignissim. Cras ut leo sed odio maximus euismod ac sed erat.

3. Missed chance: Constructing a descriptive, explanatory paragraph that builds to a concluding statement of a legal doctrine or concept.

In pretium lorem sed elit rutrum maximus. Nullam venenatis semper est, et luctus est aliquam atus. Gomez v. Gomez, 234 S.W.3d 567, 570 (Tex. 2012). Vestibulum tempor vitae neque et volutpat. Maecenas commodo laoreet nulla vel porta. Fusce iaculis tortor ut pulvinar eleifend. Flake v. Adams, 123 S.W.3d 456, 458 (Tex. 2011). Ut auctor risus a vehicula efficitur. In gravida, turpis et ornare gravida, orci quam vulputate urna, id tincidunt lectus ex pulvinar dolor. Proin ac tortor sapien. Sed maximus in sapien quis dignissim. Bradley v. Kang, 343 S.W.3d 282, 289 (Tex. 2013). Cras ut leo sed odio maximus euismod ac sed erat. Consequently, Texas common law recognizes promise and performance as the elements of equitable adoption.

3a. Why not begin the paragraph with the statement, describe and explain, and then reiterate the doctrine or concept at the end?

 Texas common law recognizes promise and performance as the elements of equitable adoption. In pretium lorem sed elit rutrum maximus. Nullam venenatis semper est, et luctus est aliquam atus. Gomez v. Gomez, 234 S.W.3d 567, 570 (Tex. 2012). Vestibulum tempor vitae neque et volutpat. Maecenas commodo laoreet nulla vel porta. Fusce iaculis tortor ut pulvinar eleifend. Flake v. Adams, 123 S.W.3d 456, 458 (Tex. 2011). Ut auctor risus a vehicula efficitur. In gravida, turpis et ornare gravida, orci quam vulputate urna, id tincidunt lectus ex pulvinar dolor. Proin ac tortor sapien. Sed maximus in sapien quis dignissim. Bradley v. Kang, 343 S.W.3d 282, 289 (Tex. 2013). Cras ut leo sed odio maximus euismod ac sed erat, thus supporting promise and performance as the elements of equitable adoption.

4. Missed chance: Building an argument with legal analysis and concluding the paragraph with the key assertion.

In pretium lorem sed elit rutrum maximus. Nullam venenatis semper est, et luctus est aliquam at. Vestibulum tempor vitae neque et volutpat. Maecenas commodo laoreet nulla vel porta. Fusce iaculis tortor ut pulvinar eleifend. Ut auctor risus a vehicula efficitur. Flake v. Adams, 123 S.W.3d 456, 458 (Tex. 2011). In gravida, turpis et ornare gravida, orci quam vulputate urna, id tincidunt lectus ex pulvinar dolor. Maecenas vel eros quis sem porta pellentesque eget quis neque. Phasellus pretium eros ac vestibulum tincidunt. Pellentesque non dui maximus tortor tristique tempor vel sollicitudin leo. Proin ac tortor sapien. Sed maximus in sapien quis dignissim. Cras ut leo sed odio maximus euismod ac sed erat. Therefore, Chris Jaramillo should be awarded an equal share of the estate of Ron Jaramillo.

4a. Why not begin the paragraph with the key assertion, use legal analysis to support that position, and then reiterate the assertion at the end?

 Chris Jaramillo should receive an equal share of the estate of Ron Jaramillo. In pretium lorem sed elit rutrum maximus. Nullam venenatis semper est, et luctus est aliquam at. Vestibulum tempor vitae neque et volutpat. Maecenas commodo laoreet nulla vel porta. Fusce iaculis tortor ut pulvinar eleifend. Ut auctor risus a vehicula efficitur. Flake v. Adams, 123 S.W.3d 456, 458 (Tex. 2011). In gravida, turpis et ornare gravida, orci quam vulputate urna, id tincidunt lectus ex pulvinar dolor. Maecenas vel eros quis sem porta pellentesque eget quis neque. Phasellus pretium eros ac vestibulum tincidunt. Pellentesque non dui maximus tortor tristique tempor vel sollicitudin leo. Proin ac tortor sapien. Sed maximus in sapien quis dignissim. Cras ut leo sed odio maximus euismod ac sed erat, confirming that Chris Jaramillo should be awarded an equal share of Ron Jaramillo’s estate.

 

 

Over-simplified writing advice, 4

Part 4 of 4

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

I recently heard a speaker criticize the following advice as “oversimplified”:

“Write short sentences.”

The speaker characterized it as “common writing advice.” I think this supposedly common advice is a straw target—a target that legal-writing teachers and experts don’t actually advise and that the speaker set up to be easily knocked down. Here’s the my own take.

The best advice is to aim for an average sentence length in the low 20s. Here’s what experts say about average sentence length in legal writing:

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

That’s average. Some sentences would be longer, some shorter. I haven’t found any experts advising a maximum sentence length, but for me, it’s 45 words. Anything longer risks losing the reader.

Other than that, the experts recommend varying your sentence length:

  • You want some longer sentences and some shorter ones.1
  • Varying your sentence lengths is generally a good idea.2
  • Keep the sentences shorter to create a sense of movement and make them easy to read, but vary length to avoid monotony.3

The occasional very short sentence (3 to 7 words) stands out and creates emphasis. The occasional long sentence—probably in a strict, parallel, three-part series—is memorable.

That’s the real advice. No one actually says “Write short sentences” without further clarification or explanation.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

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1. Bryan A. Garner, LawProse Lesson #269: Average sentence length.

2. Joseph Regalia, The Art of Legal Writing: The Sentence, Appellate Advocacy Blog (May 19, 2018).

3. Ellie Margolis, 10 top tips for legal writing, Before the Bar (Nov. 7, 2019).

 

 

Over-simplified writing advice, 3

Part 3 of 4

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

I recently read some writing advice offered by a capable lawyer with 10 years’ experience. The advice was offered in absolute terms, and I thought it was oversimplified. Here’s the advice with my own take.

“Never use passive voice.”

It would be difficult to follow this advice literally, and it’s not necessary to write a memo or motion or brief and never use the passive voice.[1] Better advice for the passive voice would be avoid defaulting to the passive voice—use it sparingly but deliberately. I’ve written about the passive voice here:

In that post, I pointed out the drawbacks of the passive voice: that it can be wordy and dry and that it’s overused in legal writing. But I also acknowledged that it has its place. We shouldn’t forbid all passive-voice constructions; the passive voice has legitimate uses, and here are three.

1. When the doer of the action is unknown or irrelevant: The police were notified.

  • We don’t know or care who notified the police; we’re just saying they were notified.

2. When the key focus is on the recipient of the action, not the doer of the action: Treyco’s account was frozen, not Mercury’s account.

  • This sentence focuses on which account was frozen, not on who did the freezing.

3. To avoid the appearance of responsibility: The claim files had been deleted.

  • This sentence hides the one who did the deleting. Avoiding the appearance of responsibility is occasionally useful in legal writing, but if you use the passive voice to hide responsibility a lot, your readers will figure it out.

Again, my view is that for high-caliber, sophisticated legal writing, absolute prohibitions typically aren’t the best advice. Inform yourself about the advice, consider your audience and purpose, and exercise your editorial judgment.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

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[1] In fact, in an example the lawyer displayed for another purpose, there were three uses of the passive voice in the first four sentences. All three uses were appropriate; I’m just pointing out that it’s not reasonable to advise, “Never use passive voice.”

Over-simplified writing advice, 2

Part 2 of 4

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

I recently read some writing advice offered by a capable lawyer with 10 years’ experience. The advice was offered in absolute terms, and I thought it was oversimplified. Here’s the advice with my own take.

“Never use pronouns.”

You can’t follow this advice literally. It’s not possible to write a memo or motion or brief and never use a pronoun.[1] Well, maybe it’s possible, but you’d end up with awful, stilted-sounding prose.

So this (4 pronouns, including 1 possessive pronoun):

  • Kessler argues that under section 101.001, she is entitled to reinstatement to her former position, to the wages she lost, and to reinstatement of seniority rights she had earned.

would have to be re-written like this (no pronouns):

  • Kessler argues that under section 101.001, Kessler is entitled to reinstatement to Kessler’s former position, to the wages Kessler lost, and to reinstatement of seniority rights Kessler had earned.

No one should write like that.

Based on the examples the lawyer gave, what was meant was probably something more like don’t over-rely on pronouns. But for a sophisticated legal writer, even that advice is too simple. I’d offer something more like ensure that each pronoun has a clear and unambiguous referent (antecedent).

In the following example, the pronoun this is vague.

  • The court held that section 101.001 does not apply. This means Kessler cannot rely on section 101.001.

It’s not clear what “this” refers to. But we can clarify by adding a noun that the word this points to (this, that, these, and those are demonstrative pronouns, which some experts call “pointing words”):

  • The court held that section 101.001 does not apply. This holding means Kessler cannot rely on section 101.001.

In the following example, the pronoun she is ambiguous:

  • Ms. Gilmer and Officer Kara Lopez arranged a meeting to discuss the case, but when the time for the meeting arrived, she did not show up.

“She” could refer to Ms. Gilmer or Officer Kara Lopez. To clarify the meaning, we can replace the pronoun with a proper noun:

  • Ms. Gilmer and Officer Kara Lopez arranged a meeting to discuss the case, but when the time for the meeting arrived, Officer Lopez did not show up.

or we can rewrite the sentence to avoid ambiguity:

  • Ms. Gilmer did not show up for a meeting she had arranged with Officer Kara Lopez to discuss the case.

My view is that for high-caliber, sophisticated legal writing, absolute prohibitions typically aren’t the best advice. Inform yourself about the advice, consider your audience and purpose, and exercise your editorial judgment.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

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[1] In fact, in an example legal document the lawyer displayed for another purpose, there were four pronouns in the first three sentences. All four pronouns uses were appropriate and precise; I’m just pointing out that it’s not reasonable to advise, “Never use pronouns.”