Category Archives: Law Practice

The passive voice … is used by lawyers.

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

The passive voice is frequently censured and widely condemned. Why is so much bad press received by the passive voice? Oops. Why does the passive voice receive so much bad press?

Lawyers overuse it, and its overuse makes for wordy, dull writing.

Quick review: The passive voice relies on a be verb (most commonly was, were, and been) plus a past-tense verb (technically past participle). All the following are in the passive voice (be verb and past-tense verb in italics):

  • Mistakes were made.
  • The contract was signed.
  • The DNA has been collected.

By the way, a sentence like The statute is applicable might be undesirable (I’d prefer The statute applies) but it’s not in the passive voice. Yes, it has a be verb (is), but applicable isn’t a verb.

In the examples, we can see a key feature of the passive voice: The doer of the verb is not the subject of the sentence. In fact, the doer of the verb is missing from the sentence entirely. Mistakes were made. Who made them? We don’t know. We can put the doer of the verb into a passive-voice sentence, but we have to attach the doer with a prepositional phrase at the end:

  • Mistakes were made by my staff.
  • The contract was signed by Christina Duran.
  • The DNA has been collected by Officer Kiser.

In the active voice, these sentences would be more vigorous and more concise:

  • My staff made mistakes.
  • Christina Duran signed the contract.
  • Officer Kiser has collected the DNA.

Now we can explain the bad press. When we overuse the passive voice in legal writing, we produce dull prose two ways: We rob the writing of doers, of actors, of action. Stuff just happens—no one does it. Or we name the doers, but they’re tacked on at the end—something was done by someone. That’s wordy.

Hiding the doer and producing wordy prose can be bad things in legal writing, and the experts agree:

“The passive voice results in a wordier sentence … and often obscures the actor.”1

“The passive voice creates two problems. It uses more words than active voice, and it risks creating ambiguity.”2

“Generally, prefer the active voice over the passive voice for several reasons: It is more concise.… It uses a more vigorous verb.”3

But we don’t forbid all passive-voice constructions; the passive voice has legitimate uses, and here are three.

  1. 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. The focus is on the recipient of the action, and the doer of the action is unimportant. Treyco’s account was frozen, not Mercury’s account. This sentence focuses on which account was frozen, not on who did the freezing.
  3. The appearance of responsibility is being avoided. The emails have 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 avoid responsibility a lot, your readers will figure it out.

So the passive voice isn’t wrong; it has legitimate uses in legal writing. It is overused by lawyers (passive). Lawyers overuse it (active). So when you edit your writing, check for passive-voice constructions—maybe do a search for was and were. When you spot the passive voice, ask yourself, “Do I need the passive voice here?” If you don’t, the active voice will be more vigorous and more concise.

Wayne Schiess’s books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It.

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1. Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 659 (3d ed. 2011).

2. Richard C. Wydick & Amy E. Sloan, Plain English for Lawyers 29 (6th ed. 2019).

3. Laurel Currie Oates & Anne Enquist, The Legal Writing Handbook 514-15 (5th ed. 2010).

Reducing legal-writing clutter with (cleaned up)

Have you heard of (cleaned up)—the daring new explanatory parenthetical?

Suppose you’re writing a piece of legal analysis and you need to quote a case that’s quoting another case. And suppose you choose to omit some words and alter the original a bit. Under Bluebook rules, you’d cite the case you’re quoting as well as the underlying source, and you’d show every alteration and omission. Those are the rules. So you might end up with something like this:

The Court has previously observed that “[t]he failure to affirmatively establish the fact sought does not ‘prevent the cross-examination from having . . . probative value in regard to the witness’s credibility.’” Henry v. State, 343 S.W.3d 282, 288 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018) (quoting Cawdery v. State, 583 S.W.2d 705, 710 (Tex. Crim. App. 1979)).

But what if you could delete the brackets, the ellipses, and the quotation within a quotation? What if you could omit the underlying source and the parenthetical it’s embedded in? Would that be okay, as long as you told the reader you “cleaned up” what would otherwise be a messy quotation? If you did, it might look like this:

The Court has previously observed that “the failure to affirmatively establish the fact sought does not prevent the cross-examination from having probative value in regard to the witness’s credibility.” Henry v. State, 343 S.W.3d 282, 288 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018) (cleaned up).

That cleaner, neater version was the goal of attorney Jack Metzler when he invented the “cleaned up” explanatory parenthetical in 2017. Metzler has also written a law-review article about (cleaned up). The idea was to make quotations easier to read and to reduce words and bibliographic clutter. So this original—

Above all, “[c]ourts presume that the Legislature ‘ “understands and correctly appreciates the needs of its own people, that its laws are directed to problems made manifest by experience, and that its discriminations are based upon adequate grounds.” ’ ” Enron Corp. v. Spring Indep. Sch. Dist., 922 S.W.2d 931, 934 (Tex. 1996) (quoting Smith v. Davis, 426 S.W.2d 827, 831 (Tex. 1968) (quoting Texas Nat’l Guard Armory Bd. v. McCraw, 126 S.W.2d 627, 634 (Tex. 1939))).

would look like this—

Above all, “courts presume that the Legislature understands and correctly appreciates the needs of its own people, that its laws are directed to problems manifest by experience, and that its discriminations are based on adequate grounds.” Enron Corp. v. Spring Indep. Sch. Dist., 922 S.W.2d 931, 934 (Tex. 1996) (cleaned up).

Metzler’s idea was a hit. Lawyers and judges have started using (cleaned up), and it has appeared in dozens of appellate briefs and judicial opinions in Texas, as well as in other state courts and federal courts. Metzler’s rules for (cleaned up) appeared in the Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, and they’re quoted in full at the bottom of this post. But here’s a quick summary: Using (cleaned up) means that in quoting, the author—

  • has removed extraneous, non-substantive material such as brackets, quotation marks, ellipses, footnote numbers, and internal citations,
  • has changed capitalization without indicating the changes, and
  • has made changes that enhance readability while otherwise faithfully reproducing the quoted text.

Bottom line: using (cleaned up) makes quoting and citing easier and aids reading, too.

But beware. When you use (cleaned up), your credibility is on the line. You’re saying, “I haven’t altered this quotation unethically, and I haven’t done anything dishonest or underhanded.” If you use (cleaned up) to change the quotation in ways that misrepresent the original text, your credibility is gone.

Of course, that’s true of anything you cite or quote: if you’ve exaggerated, fudged, or lied, someone—judge, staff attorney, clerk, opposing counsel—will find you out. So consider (cleaned up) and join me in hoping the next edition of the Bluebook takes note.

Get Wayne Schiess’s books:

Legal Writing Nerd: Be One
Plain Legal Writing: Do It

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Proposed Bluebook Rule 5.4: Cleaning up Quotations:

(a) Cleaning up. When language quoted from a court decision contains material quoted from an earlier decision, the quotation may, for readability, be stripped of internal quotation marks, brackets, ellipses, internal citations, and footnote reference numbers; the original sources of quotations within the quotation need not be cited parenthetically; and capitalization may be changed without brackets. Indicate these changes parenthetically with (cleaned up). Other than the changes specified, the text of the quotation after it has been cleaned up should match the text used in the opinion cited. If the quotation is altered further, indicate the changes or omissions according to Rules 5.2 and 5.3.

(b) Cleaning up intermediary case citations. In addition to the alterations described in Rule 5.4(a), when a quoted passage quotes a second case quoting a third case, the citation to the middle case may be omitted to show that the first court quoted the third. To indicate this change, retain the quotation marks around the material quoted from the third case and any alterations that were made to the quotation, and insert (cleaned up) before the “quoting” parenthetical citation to the third case. Indicate any alterations that were made to language quoted from the third case according to Rules 5.2 and 5.3.

Jack Metzler, Cleaning Up Quotations, 18 J. App. Prac. & Process 143, 154-55 (2017).

Texting and Legal Writing: Survey Results

Althoughh 86 responses is not a large number, the results are interesting and align with what I would expect.

1. Broadly speaking, what type of legal practice are you engaged in?
Litigation 62.79% 54
Transactions 13.95% 12
General practice 2.33% 2
Administrative law 9.30% 8
Other 11.63% 10
Total 100% 86

2. In a professional capacity, how much do you use texting (or something comparable to texting but not email)?
Heavily 9.30% 8
Moderately 20.93% 18
Rarely 60.47% 52
Never 9.30% 8
Total 100% 86

3. In a professional capacity, do you text mostly colleagues, opposing lawyers, or clients?
Mostly colleagues 60.47% 52
Mostly opposing lawyers 0.00% 0
Mostly clients 3.49% 3
Mostly colleagues and opposing lawyers 4.65% 4
Mostly colleagues and clients 19.77% 17
Mostly opposing lawyers and clients 0.00% 0
None of the above or I don’t text in a professional capacity 11.63% 10
Total 100% 86

4. In a professional capacity, do you ever convey legal analysis, legal advice, legal judgment, or comparable content by texting?
Yes, often 3.53% 3
Yes, occasionally 11.76% 10
Yes, rarely 29.41% 25
No, or don’t text in a professional capacity 55.29% 47
Total 100% 86

5. Should a law school first-year legal-writing course address texting?
Yes, cover it thoroughly. 4.65% 4
Yes, cover it briefly. 58.14% 50
No, don’t cover it. 30.23% 26
Don’t have an opinion. 6.98% 6
Total 100% 86