Category Archives: Teaching Legal Writing

Readability of Briefs

Two empirical studies

This post discusses two studies of appellate-brief writing that reached different conclusions and call for different explanations.

The first study scored nearly every merits brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court from 1969 to 2004 using four readability-assessment tools,[1] two of which are described here.

The Flesch Reading Ease Scale:

  • uses sentence and word length to assess readability and assigns a score: zero to 30 is “very difficult,” while 90 to 100 is “very easy,” and 60 is “plain English.”[2]

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level:

  • reports the number of years of formal education a reader needs in order to understand the text: 12 means a high-school graduate, 16 means a college graduate, and 19 means a law-school graduate.

For the time period assessed, U.S. Supreme Court briefs averaged a Flesch Reading Ease score of 35 (difficult) and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 14 (sophomore in college).

Also, during that time period, the grade level of Facts sections moved from 15 to 12—becoming simpler. The grade level of Argument sections moved from 14 to 13—again, becoming simpler. And the readability score for Argument sections moved from 33 to 39—becoming more readable.[3]

What does this trend to simpler, more-readable writing mean? Does it represent “the dumbing of America”? Should we conclude that even Supreme Court advocates are incapable of writing complex, sophisticated prose?

No. Given the high caliber of attorneys writing briefs to the Supreme Court, I draw a different conclusion. These advocates understand that a readable brief, written as simply as possible given the complex subject matter, will be more persuasive and engaging. It’s a good reminder for all legal writers.

The second study assessed briefs to the New York Court of Appeals from 1969 to 2008, and it relied on the tools already described: the Flesch Reading Ease Scale and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.[4] But this study didn’t have good news.

Based on scores by decade (1969-78, 1979-88, 1989-98, 1999-2008), the average Flesch Kincaid Grade level moved from 13 to 14—becoming less simple, and the average Flesch Reading Ease Score moved from 42 to 32—becoming less readable.[5] The author was dismayed by these results in part because the time period, 1969-2008, roughly corresponds with a trend toward more and better legal-writing instruction in U.S. law schools.

Does this mean that legal-writing teachers, like me, aren’t making writing better—we’re making it worse? I took that pretty hard. I wanted a different explanation, and I think I found one.

Granted, when viewing the numbers by decade, you see a trend to less simple, less readable legal writing. But if you view the numbers by year, you see that there probably isn’t a clear trend.

In fact, when viewed by year, the numbers fluctuate widely and almost annually. For example, the grade level for 1990 is 8, but for 1996 it’s 16. From legal writing an 8th grader could understand to writing that would require a college graduate—in 6 years? It’s hard to explain.[6]

The readability scores rise and fall in a similar way. The score for 1981 is 52 (a high score for legal writing) but drops to 40 (difficult) in 1982. It then moves back up to 52 in 1990 but drops to 30 (very difficult) by 1993.[7]

In fact, the author’s charts that report scores by year look like up-and-down zig zags without (to me) a clearly discernible trend.

So here’s my explanation: briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court are produced by a fairly small and highly sophisticated group of appellate attorneys, and their writing gets better—simpler and more readable—over time. Briefs to the New York Court of Appeals come from a wider range of attorneys with a wider range of experience and skill, and their writing shows no definite pattern of improvement.

Now I feel better.


[1] Brady Coleman & Quy Phung, The Language of Supreme Court Briefs: A Large-Scale Quantitative Investigation, 11 J. App. Prac. & Process 75, 76 (2010).

[2] Rudolf Flesch, How to Write Plain English 25 (1979).

[3] Coleman & Phung at 98, 99 (numbers rounded).

[4] Ian Gallacher, When Numbers Get Serious: A Study of Plain English Usage in Briefs Filed Before the New York Court of Appeals, 46 Suffolk U.L. Rev. 451 (2013).

[5] Id. at 465, 472.

[6] Id. at 472.

[7] Id. at 466.

What I Did Last Summer

Gathering opinions on new legal writers

In summer 2022, I had lunch meetings with five local attorneys. My goal was to gather input from practicing lawyers about ways I could improve my teaching of legal writing. Before meeting, I asked my “consultants” to consider three questions:

  1. What do you think of the writing abilities of the new lawyers you work with?
  2. What do you think of new lawyers’ ability to manage research and writing projects?
  3. What are some changes or additions to law-school legal-writing instruction you would recommend?

1. Writing abilities of new lawyers

I was pleased to learn that, according to my consultants, the writing ability of new lawyers these days is okay. No one was gushing about it—after all, new lawyers need lots of practice and experience to become skilled legal writers. But I was pleased that I didn’t hear any “the sky is falling” or “sound the alarm” reports.

I think that’s partly because formal legal-writing instruction in U.S. law schools, once almost non-existent, has been transformed in the last thirty years. At many schools, legal writing has moved from a low-credit, pass-fail course taught by teaching assistants to a graded course taught by full-time faculty.

Still, there’s room for improvement, and the most-common concerns expressed about new lawyers’ writing fell into three categories: tone, concision, and organization.

Tone: My consultants said that new lawyers sometimes write too formally, in a tone that is stiff or stilted. They guessed that new lawyers might be trying to sound …  lawyerly. This is understandable, of course, and it’s a phase nearly every lawyer passes through. You’ve entered a learned profession, and you’ve become a licensed attorney, so you want to sound like one.[1] Yes, writing with an unduly formal tone is a flaw, but it’s not a major one. With some good feedback about audience and purpose, new lawyers will adapt to expectations and begin to adopt a readable tone.

Concision: New lawyers’ writing is sometimes wordy and verbose, my consultants said. They see long sentences, complex structures, and big words. But mostly, they said, they see documents that are too long. A memo the assigning lawyer thought would be five pages is ten; email messages that could be two or three paragraphs are five. New lawyers need to weed out extraneous details and unnecessary background and deliver the key information or analysis efficiently.

I agree that concise writing is a challenge for new lawyers, and my perspective as a teacher of first-year students makes me aware of a risk to keep in mind. If you apply pressure on novice legal writers to be concise, they might cut useful or necessary content just to achieve concision. In other words, to get the five-paragraph email down to three paragraphs, the beginner might just cut two paragraphs—perhaps removing a key legal standard or an important piece of the analysis.

What we want, of course, is for the writer to carefully edit all five paragraphs, removing a few words here, dropping an unnecessary comment there, and then consolidating so that we end up with three paragraphs. Ideally, they learn to achieve concision by a series of small edits that add up.

Organization. Even a concise piece of legal writing that uses the right tone still needs to be well organized, and in this area my consultants had two key comments: First, they wanted more up-front, bottom-line summaries in nearly everything thing they read. Spill the beans: get to the point first and put the background second, they said. It’s a common recommendation for all legal writing.[2] Second, the rest of the document should be sensibly ordered, with headings if necessary and strong topic and transition sentences.

These two key comments—the need for an up-front summary and the importance of a sensible, discernible order—highlight the reality of law practice: Lawyers are busy. These two techniques help busy lawyers read and understand efficiently.

2. New lawyers’ ability to manage research and writing projects

The responses to this question fell into three categories: Getting assignments, following up, and following through.

Getting assignments

I practiced law before the Internet, cell phones, and email, so the way I got assignments was almost always to go into someone’s office with a pen and pad in hand. I sat and took notes on what I was told.

It turns out that’s still a good idea, according to my consultants.

If possible, assigning attorneys and assignment-receiving new attorneys would meet in person to discuss the assignment. The new attorney should have something to write with—probably not just a cell phone.

Even when getting an assignment by email (the most common method, according to my consultants), it’s usually a good idea to drop by and talk. New attorneys should ask about the assigning attorney’s expectations on timing, depth, length, and so on to be sure they understand the assignment. Then, after some initial work, they should check back to be sure they’re on the right track.

Following up

New lawyers and law students tell me they sometimes avoid following up with questions because they don’t want to look inept or uninformed. But my consultants said that, in fact, not following up with the assigning attorney is a bigger problem than asking too many questions.

Although it doesn’t happen frequently, it’s a serious problem to do the research and write up a project that isn’t what the assigning lawyer wanted. Of course, it’s best to follow up only after you’ve done at least some research, so you’ll have something useful to say when you check back.

Sometimes the new lawyer gets a project and can’t find anything or, at least, anything that seems responsive to the assignment. When that happens, it’s important to follow up, but it’s just as important to be able to report back with “here’s what I did.” For example, it’s great if new attorneys can say, here are the research queries I submitted, or here are the types of authorities I consulted, or something like that.

Following through

According to my consultants, new lawyers should aspire to do more than merely answer the question; one recommendation is to include a short report on the best cases for and against the outcome predicted. In addition, new lawyers should invest in the problem: ask about it, care about it, try to get involved.

Some new lawyers make the mistake of assuming that it’s a senior attorney’s job to get them involved and pull them into projects. But getting involved is a new attorney’s job. New attorneys should become invested in the problem, ask follow-up questions, and care about the result for the client.

3. Recommended changes or additions to law-school legal-writing instruction

My consultants had lots of ideas, and I’ve listed some below. There are some great suggestions, but given that my focus is on first-year legal writing courses, I’ve categorized them into two groups: (a) good ideas that my colleagues and I are already doing, are hoping to do more of, or are planning for the future; and (b) good ideas that might become part of an upper-division course or clinic but that would be difficult to implement in the first-year legal-writing course.


  • Oral assigning of projects
  • Assignments given and responded to by email only
  • Assignments that ask, “The client has done [or wants to do] X. What do you recommend?”


  • Assignments to adapt a template motion or brief into a motion or brief on a different topic
  • Assignments to find motions, briefs, and other pleadings prepared by opposing counsel
  • Training in transactional drafting
  • Assignments to boil down a complex transaction into a concise report

Overall, it was a great summer project that I hope to do again in a more systematic and expanded way.


[1] Wayne Schiess, The Sound in Your Head, Austin Lawyer 6 (Nov. 2009).

[2] Wayne Schiess, Legal Writing Nerd: Be One 25-29, 30-36 (2018).

Student Essay: 1L Legal Writing

A Valuable Lesson

by Adarsh Parthasarathy

I think the most valuable lesson I learned from my 1L writing courses is evidenced in an assignment I’m doing right now for the a public-defender organization. I am writing a memo on jury charge errors and how they might be litigated in state habeas proceedings in Texas with application to a set of facts specific to the client’s case. My initial research has revealed that the issue is extremely complicated, with several competing state and federal standards. The decision of what standard to use depends on several factors, both factual and strategic: whether error was preserved at the trial level, whether the nature of the claim is constitutional in dimension or based in state law, what the nature of the jury error is, and what standards give us the best chance of success given the applicable facts.

As my 1L final memo serves as evidence of, my untrained reaction when approaching a complex legal issue was to break the issue down in several different “roads” and then do a detailed analysis of each “road” with its own “Question Presented,” “Brief Answer,” and “Analysis” pieces. In my 1L year, the issue we were asked to write our final about was whether a defendant can assert any one of four different defenses to a breach of contract claim. These four defenses were chosen intentionally, of that I have no doubt, for although they were all used in Texas law, the effective differences between them from a legal point of view were, in some cases, negligible. The most important lesson of the final memo was therefore likely that the ability to analyze an issue to death is but a stepping-stone to what makes an advanced legal writer: the ability to recognize redundancy in the legal landscape and condense. That is something I failed to do, instead writing a seven-thousand-word memo that treated each of the defenses as separate “roads” rather than recognizing, at some point in my research that, although the roads may start at different places, they merge further along.

It’s pure happenstance that I ended up using my 1L memo document as a formatting template for my current memo assignment. It ended up being good luck; it jogged my memory as to the mistake I made in 1L and forced me to realize that I was making the same mistake two years later. I think that it reveals an important step that I do not remember explicitly being taught in my legal writing courses: that it is important, after doing research on an issue, to see where answers to your initial questions seem the same and where they seem different. It sounds basic when stated like that, but I think that it is against natural instincts to finish researching a legal issue and then pause to re-structure what you’ve found. I feel that the natural instinct is to write in the same structure as your research.

While I am not able to speak to the specifics of my current assignment beyond what I have already described, it suffices to say that there were many tests set out by the courts that “merged” as their analytical steps progressed even if they started at different places. A memo that exhaustively analyzed each path as isolated would have been repetitive. However, an organization that corrals different starting points that lead to the same conclusion ends up being far more efficient and effective.

While I don’t feel that my first-year writing courses set out this lesson explicitly, I think I ultimately learned the lesson from looking at the comments on my final paper and understanding why what I did was not the best way to analyze the issue. I think that the redundancy in the research findings for the final memo is a common problem to run into in legal research and that the lesson should be set out explicitly so that students are better equipped to realize that a potential issue they are likely to confront is a decision as to what distinctions in the law are meaningful and what distinctions are not. That is generally a subject specific judgment, of course, but I believe that it will raise one’s raise one’s awareness to the possibility of such an occurrence to be given examples of this issue in the law (perhaps on the factual sufficiency versus legal sufficiency standards for convictions, which Texas courts have given up defending a distinction between?). Legal writing courses cannot prepare one for the specifics of every issue that one will encounter, but it can at least forewarn students of the variety of issues they may encounter, in a general sense, so that they recognize an issue as it happens and are able to address it in the appropriate context-specific way.

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 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


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, 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 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


[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.”