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.

Student Essay: Read the News

Yes, Lawyers Should Read the News. But Not for the Reason You Think.

By Emma Edmund

Bryan Garner’s “A Tale of 2 Associates” includes plenty of examples of how polished legal writing can help a lawyer win a client’s case, but its most notable piece of advice is not on how to write, but what to read.

At the end of Garner’s hypothetical situation, second-year associate Denise tells fourth-year Jim to read The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic, telling him, “They’re not using any techniques in their nonfiction work that we can’t use in ours.”[1] While lawyers read the news to stay up-to-date on current events, Garner references the vast similarities between general journalism and legal writing, specifically the techniques within the writing that lawyers can adopt.[2] Journalism contains three essential elements that can shape better legal writing: a tone geared toward a wide audience, an inverted pyramid structure designed to maximize information absorption, and a delicate balance between revealing details and keeping stories general.

First, journalists write for a broad audience, and legal writers would benefit from writing with a broad audience in mind. For example, The Wall Street Journal, though writing for an educated and wealthy audience, caters to over 42 million unique visitors per month as of 2017.[3] With an audience that large, newspapers and newspaper schools are quick to teach journalists to write simply and give ample, and, if possible, objective, context to their stories.[4]

Lawyers, however, write for a significantly smaller circle; many legal writing assignments go to a supervisor, client, or judge; these people are intimately connected to the legal community. While other lawyers or clients can make up the bulk of the people who read legal work, lawyers should also note who might else read their writing, including students of all disciplines who read legal writing for assignments, journalists who translate lawsuit-related documents into news articles, and people who research legal problems on the internet and stumble across a law firm’s blog. By anticipating a wide audience, lawyers can train themselves to make their writing more accessible, and they can read newspapers for examples of writing style and structure that incorporate accessibility.

Second, lawyers should study the typical news article structure, also known as the inverted pyramid. General, hard news stories employ the “inverted pyramid” by containing the most essential information in the lede, the necessary context in the second, nutshell paragraph, and details organized from most to least important in the rest of the article.[5] Though the practice originated with journalists nervous about losing a story as it was transmitted over telegraph, current journalists also recognize that readers might not finish the entire story as they scroll through a website or social media channel.[6] The inverted pyramid allows readers to get the most essential elements of the story, even if they don’t finish the article.

Lawyers should implement this structure in select situations. In informal memos and other non-templated legal writing assignments, lawyers can style their writing so that the most important argument or topic comes first, with less relevant information near the bottom. Texas Law promotes this style of writing with its emphasis on the “short answer” at the top of assignments, not only because it prevents confusion if someone stops reading early, but because it also presents a more persuasive, coherent argument.

Finally, news articles provide examples of how to play with details. Legal writing is necessarily detail-oriented, but journalists are tasked with writing 500-word articles that contain essential details while generalizing the rest. Studying what journalists choose to write about and why, versus what they choose to keep out or save for a feature piece, could help lawyers determine how to communicate with the public or a judge through a brief with a tight deadline, informal blogs, LinkedIn posts, tweets, and more. Though many cases come down to the smallest details, most blog posts and other public-facing sites address general topics and issues, and lawyers who read news articles can mimic the level of detail needed to fully convey ideas to a wide range of people.

But lawyers should take journalists’ writings with a grain of salt when studying them for writing techniques—after all, most journalists do not have a J.D. and thus do not know how to write about strictly legal issues. But reading well-respected newspapers and magazines serve a dual purpose: they keep lawyers current on events and allow them to investigate and expose themselves to different types of writing. Lawyers can study how to write for a wider audience, mimic or remix a typical hard news structure, and play with the level of detail in assignments to evolve and shift their style for various needs.

[1] Bryan A. Garner, A Tale of 2 Associates: How Polish and Attention to Detail Can Win the Motion, ABA Journal, June 2014, at 1, 4.

[2] See id.

[3] WSJ.com Audience Profile, Dow Jones & Co., Inc. (2017), https://images.dowjones.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/183/2018/05/09164150/WSJ.com-Audience-Profile.pdf (noting that readers’ average household income was over $242,000 and 81% of readers graduated college).

[4] Journalism and Journalistic Writing: Introduction, Purdue Online Writing Lab, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/journalism_and_journalistic_writing/index.html; How to Write Like a Journalist: 8 Tips, MasterClass, Sep. 8, 2021, https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-write-like-a-journalist.

[5] The Inverted Pyramid Structure, Purdue Online Writing Lab, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/journalism_and_journalistic_writing/the_inverted_pyramid.html.

[6] Id.; Jasmine Roberts, Writing for Strategic Communication Industries (2016), https://ohiostate.pressbooks.pub/stratcommwriting/chapter/inverted-pyramid-style/#:~:text=In%20general%2C%20news%20stories%20are,or%20stop%20reading%20the%20story..

Student Essay: Mistakes Matter

Mistakes Matter

By Belinda Schwertner

“Mistakes don’t matter” was not a phrase overheard in my first-year writing course at The University of Texas School of Law. But, in Bryan A. Garner’s 2014 ABA Journal article, A Tale of 2 Associates: How Polish and Attention to Detail Can Win the Motion, Jim, a fourth-year associate, tries to convince Denise, a second-year associate with whom he is collaborating on a motion, that mistakes are acceptable. Jim contends that minor grammatical errors are not consequential to legal writing if those mistakes are small and the writing’s meaning is clear. After some coaxing, Jim reluctantly allows Denise carte blanche to edit the motion. Denise’s careful editing helps them win the motion and convinces Jim that correcting mistakes in legal writing is worth the effort.

One question that Garner’s article invites is why Jim is hesitant to accept Denise’s help polishing his motion. Jim believes that editing for grammatical mistakes wastes both time and money. Jim reasoned that he had previously had several successful hearings with this judge without them mentioning any shortcomings in his writings. However, Jim underestimates how grammatical mistakes can take away from the substance of legal writing. Grammatical errors in legal writing can cause the reader to pause to understand the writer’s meaning—the reader’s attention span shortens while their negative perception of the writing increases. Although mediocre writing can be effective, writers should not unnecessarily burden readers with careless errors.

Another explanation for Jim’s reluctance to accept Denise’s help could be an unfounded belief that first- and second-year associates are less-skilled writers. Having more experience, Jim might believe he is a better writer (although Denise’s editing skills are superior). Perhaps Jim is unaware of nationwide advances in legal writing curriculums. Maybe Jim is too busy “working” to work on improving his writing skills. Most people dislike change; similarly, Jim might favor the status quo. However, Jim comes to appreciate that the “cost” of editing—one hour and five minutes of Denise’s time—is well worth the rewards received: their supervising partner’s praise and admiration and the judge’s acknowledgment of their well-written motion.

Bryan Garner’s tale illustrates several critical points about legal writing. For example, correcting grammatical errors can only improve substantive legal writing. A small investment of time in editing reaps huge rewards. Further, legal writers can enhance their skills incrementally, making the process less daunting. Resources available to legal writers today are vast, and many are accessible online and free. Frequently reading non-legal works, such as well-written prose and periodicals, can also improve one’s writing intelligence. Other lessons learned from Mr. Garner are that senior lawyers should not assume that just because a lawyer is their junior, they are not good legal writers. Also, people beyond the presiding judge will likely read legal writings. Impressions about a lawyer, and by extension, their firm, can be gleaned from the quality of their writing. Therefore, given the vast legal writing resources and the cost-benefit analysis of employing editing, most lawyers have no excuse not to write well. Finally, it is never too late to learn.

Since writing is what lawyers spend most of their time doing, lawyers should take steps to improve the quality of their legal writing. Law schools continuously strive to improve their legal writing curriculum. And, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, law students are not hopeless in their legal writing endeavors. Moreover, lawyers are prone to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority, where a person overestimates their qualities and abilities in relation to the same qualities and abilities in other people. If a lawyer harbors this cognitive bias, awareness of it might allow them to be more receptive to learning techniques that could improve their legal writing.

Another way that lawyers could enhance the quality of their legal writing would be for each state’s bar association to require coursework on legal writing as part of continuing legal education (CLE). Currently, Texas requires licensed attorneys to complete fifteen hours of CLE yearly, three of which are ethics requirements. It is not beyond reason to mandate CLE in legal writing because writing is a core skill of the legal profession. The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct states in the comment section of Rule 1.3 (Diligence) that “a lawyer must also act with commitment and dedication to the interests of the client and with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf.” Indeed, the requirement of zealous advocacy necessitates an attorney’s need to present only their best-written work.

Not all lawyers possess the same level of writing intelligence, but most lawyers can improve their writing skills with little effort. There should be no excuse for, or acceptance of, simple errors in legal writing. In 2022, spell check is not hard to use. Mistakes in legal writing are like a near miss in aviation. Even though passengers ultimately make it to their destination without injury, the journey might have been harrowing for them. Similarly, a judge may grant a poorly written motion, but at what cost to the reader and the writer’s reputation? Lawyers are known for their incredible attention to detail. Still, grammatical mistakes in legal writing can cause the reader to believe that the analysis and reasoning of the author are unsound, even though they might not be.

There is almost always room for improvement in legal writing. Most lawyers can learn to improve their legal writing through patience and practice. Also, if legal writers are diligent in correcting their grammatical errors, they will eventually require less time for editing as their writing skills evolve. Good legal writing can be powerful. The time an attorney spends editing often translates to real-world positive results. Just ask Jim.

Readable Contracts Part 3

Readability, grade level, and sentence length

This is part 3 of a series discussing the study, “Poor Writing, Not Specialized Concepts, Drives Processing Difficulty in Legal Language,”[1] in which the authors compared contract language with everyday written English. I was able to contact the authors and access the corpora they used, and I conducted my own assessments. (Note: the corpus of contracts I used had 837,000 words; the corpus of everyday written English had more than a million words.)

I assessed the text for average sentence length, Flesch Reading Ease, and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, and also included those averages from my last 10 columns that have appeared here. The results:

These results support the conclusions of the original study’s authors, but I’ll say a bit more about them here.

 

 

 

Avg. Sentence Length

Flesch Reading Ease

Flesch- Kincaid Grade

Everyday written language

17 56 9

Contract language

42 20 19

Schiess’s last 10 columns

17 52 10

Average sentence length

The average for the everyday English—17 words—is short but typical: everyday-English sentences average 15 to 20 words. This corpus included blogs, web pages, and TV and movie scripts, so the low number makes sense.

The 42-word average for the contracts is, well, huge. As I pointed out last month, these are commercial contracts entered by sophisticated parties represented by counsel, so the long sentences aren’t as troubling as they might be if the contracts were apartment leases, credit-card agreements, or software-user agreements.

The 42-word average means that there are some really long sentences, and even experienced transactional lawyers might find reading those long sentences difficult.

Flesch Reading Ease

This formula, included in Microsoft Word, was finalized in 1948 by Rudolf Flesch, an Austrian lawyer who fled the Nazis in 1938 and earned a Ph.D. in education in the United States. It assesses the number of syllables and sentences per each 100 words and uses that assessment to produce a score from 0 to 100: 30 is difficult, and 60 is plain English.[2]

At 56, the everyday English text comes close to Flesch’s standard for plain English—as it should. And as we might have predicted, the Reading Ease score for the contract language is low—what Flesch labels “very difficult.”[3] The long average sentence length doubtless contributes to this low score, but the average number of syllables per word surely does, too.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level

This scoring system was derived from the Flesch Reading Ease score by J.P. Kincaid[4] and reports the number of years of formal education a reader needs in order to understand the text. The everyday English scored a 9, meaning one who has completed the ninth grade should be able to read and understand it. My own writing—which is mostly about writing—tends to hover around the tenth-grade level.

The Flesch-Kincaid grade level for the contract language is high at 19, although I once read a decision from an administrative-hearing appeal that scored a 20. But grade level 19 is, unsurprisingly, the equivalent of a reader with a high-school education (12), a college degree (16), and a law degree (19).

Thus, the grade level is appropriate given the context: these contracts were prepared by and for attorneys.

Recommendations

Still, the 42-word average sentence length is taxing at best and on the border of impenetrable. Anything we can do to reduce that average will make the contract easier to read and understand and, therefore, easier to draft, easier to review, and easier to explain to the client.

Next month: a report of additional findings based on the two corpora.

_____

[1] Eric Martinez, Francis Mollica, & Edward Gibson, Poor Writing, Not Specialized Concepts, Drives Processing Difficulty in Legal Language, Cognition 224 (2022).

[2] William H. DuBay, Smart Language: Readers, Readability, and the Grading of Text 56 (2007); Rudolf Flesch, How to Write Plain English 25 (1979).

[3] Flesch, How to Write Plain English at 25.

[4] DuBay, Smart Language at 90-91.

Readable Contracts, part 2

Three more findings—with advice

This is part 2 of a series discussing the findings of a study, Poor Writing, Not Specialized Concepts, Drives Processing Difficulty in Legal Language,[1] in which the authors compared contract language with everyday written English. Here are three more findings: Contract language has higher frequencies of—

  • center-embedded sentence structure
  • words used rarely in everyday English
  • words with a higher-frequency synonym (fancy words that could’ve been simpler)

Center embedding means inserting a phrase or clause within another phrase or clause. Here’s an example from the authors:

In the event that any payment or benefit by the Company (all such payments and benefits, including the payments and benefits under Section 3(a) hereof, being hereinafter referred to as the “Total Payments”), would be subject to excise tax, then the cash severance payments shall be reduced.[2]

In a sentence of 47 words, placing another clause of 22 words in the middle makes for difficult reading. An easy fix is to place the embedded definition clause in a separate sentence:

In the event that any payment or benefit by the Company would be subject to excise tax, then the cash severance payments shall be reduced. All such payments and benefits, including the payments and benefits under Section 3(a) hereof, are hereinafter referred to as the “Total Payments.”

Now we approach a thornier topic: Even without this study, any lawyer and anyone who has read a contract could’ve told you that contracts use words that are rare in everyday English as well as words that have simpler or more-readable synonyms. But is that a problem?

On this topic, I won’t offer recommendations for using shorter or simpler words in contracts. Yes, doing so could make contracts more readable, but I’ll propose three reasons that doing so might not be ideal.

  1. The studied contracts were commercial contracts entered by sophisticated parties represented by counsel.

In my review of the contracts in the corpus, I didn’t see a single consumer contract: apartment lease, credit-card agreement, software-user agreement, car insurance.

So the studied contracts don’t necessarily need to be read and understood by someone without legal training. For the contracts in the corpus, those who need to read and understand the language are lawyers, and those lawyers—we hope—can explain the contract language to those who need to understand it.

  1. Contracts contain some legal terms that either cannot or should not be simplified.

Yes, contracts use words and phrases unique to legal language or with a different meaning from the everyday-English meaning. But replacing those words and phrases to enhance readability could introduce risk, or it could require the drafter to use even more words to explain what the legal term means.

But note: the number of terms of art or unique legal terms is fairly small—smaller than some legal drafters claim. In one study, only 3% of the words found in a standard real-estate-purchase agreement had ever been construed or defined by a court.[3]

  1. Revising lengthy, complex contracts for readability might not be cost effective.

Given that the commercial contracts in the study were prepared by, reviewed by, and could (I assume) be explained by transactional lawyers, how would we justify the cost of revising them? We’d need to replace rare words with everyday words and replace or explain legal terms. Who’s going to pay for it?

These contracts were certainly based on forms or precedents from previous transactions, a practice that saves time and money. Add to that fact the reality that very few contracts result in “disputes” (as high as 9% according to one commercial source[4]) and that even fewer end up in litigation (fewer than 0.1% by one estimate[5]).

Next month: my own findings based on the corpora from the study.

__________

[1] Eric Martinez, Francis Mollica, & Edward Gibson, Poor Writing, Not Specialized Concepts, Drives Processing Difficulty in Legal Language, Cognition 224 (2022).

[2] Id. at

[3] Benson Barr, George Hathaway, Nancy Omichinski, & Diana Pratt, Legalese and the Myth of Case Precedent, 64 Mich. Bar. J. 1136, 1137 (Oct. 1985).

[4] Contract Assistant, Not Good: Average of 9 Percent of Contracts Result in Dispute, https://contractassistant.com/​not-good-9-percent-of-contracts-result-in-dispute/ (accessed June 23, 2022).

[5] Id.