The biggest impediment

The biggest impediment to better legal writing isn’t the lack of quality instruction in law school.

It’s law practice.

Deadlines. Time limits. Conventions. Fear. Supervisor expectations. Local rules. Forms and templates. Money. Inertia. Complacency.

All these prevent lawyers from taking the appropriate time to polish their writing. For example, even if a lawyer has four weeks to write a brief, that’s not enough because the same lawyer has three other briefs, four memos, and eight letters to write at the same time, not to mention the 150 e-mail messages to read and respond to.

Revising, editing, and rewriting are what make mediocre writing good and good writing great, but lawyers don’t have enough time for them.

David Mellinkoff captured the nature of the busy law practice and its effects on legal writing:

Sometimes urgency forces precedence over everything else. Get it done. Get something out. We’ve got to file. This is a “rush.” The writer is under pressure to take shortcuts. This has become the normal environment of most legal writing, and is one of the principal reasons why so much of it is so bad.

David Mellinkoff, Legal Writing: Sense and Nonsense 116 (1982).

The unfortunate fact is that this kind of rushed approach often gets the job done—it’s often good enough or has to be. One reason it gets by is that many of us have been writing this way—under a deadline and without sufficient time devoted to polishing—since college:

Many young lawyers seem to have survived writing assignments in college and law school (with the exception of law-review writing) by turning in what were basically first drafts, lightly edited to fix glaring errors. They are unprepared to regard editing as a serious, laborious activity.

Stephen V. Armstrong & Timothy P. Terrell, Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing 298 (2003).

And so practicing lawyers continue to churn out mediocre or poor writing; the exigencies of modern life and law practice almost require it.