Qualifying legal conclusions
Legal matters are often qualified: some conclusions might merit absolutely and certainly, while others deserve possibly and likely. So legal writers justifiably use qualifiers. In my last post, I discussed qualifying factual statements; here I discuss qualifying legal conclusions.
Relying on a survey of legal-writing textbooks, I can report that these are the most commonly recommended qualifiers for legal conclusions:
The most frequently recommended are likely and its forms, with probably coming in second.
Many of the textbooks surveyed discuss the traditional, predictive memorandum, in which a lawyer predicts an outcome that may be less than certain. But the same qualifiers are useful in other contexts, too—whenever a lawyer gives advice or offers a recommendation.
In fact, likely and its forms are part of a useful continuum from positive to negative certainty. At one end is a direct yes or will—a legal result will happen; the outcome is certain. At the other is no or will not. In between are likely and unlikely, which might be further qualified: highly likely, highly unlikely, and so on.
Now the advice.
1. Don’t qualify.
As with much writing advice for adverbs, adjectives, intensifiers, and qualifiers, the best advice is to avoid them when you can. Bryan Garner recommends that legal writers “toss out timid phrases.” What’s more, he calls these qualifiers Fudge Words and offers as an undesirable example, “It would seem to appear that….” That’s a trifecta: three Fudge Words in one clause: would, seem, and appear.
The urge to qualify is natural, but legal writers must be careful of “overhedging.” Granted that legal outcomes are rarely certain, we sometimes overcorrect and qualify too much. It’s a natural tendency, and novices might be particularly vulnerable.
In fact, a colleague in another state forbids his first-year law students to qualify conclusions at all. He believes it forces them to research carefully, analyze precisely, and write clearly. But even if you don’t enforce a prohibition, it’s a good default: don’t qualify. For example (qualifiers are in boldface):
- Before: A possible lawsuit by Heather Green against her employer, Manzares & Cline LLP, could likely survive a motion to dismiss.
- After: A lawsuit by Heather Green against her employer, Manzares & Cline LLP, will survive a motion to dismiss.
2. Qualify and explain.
When you decide that you must qualify your conclusion, that you must hedge, do your best to explain why—immediately and concretely. Explaining has two benefits.
You benefit. Forcing yourself to articulate why you’ve qualified your conclusion can lead to insights about the level of qualification. Maybe you over- or under-qualified your conclusion, which you can see now that you’ve had to explain it. Revise accordingly.
Readers benefit. Explaining why you qualified a conclusion serves clients and decision-makers. They already know that likely means better than 50-50 but not a sure thing. By explaining, you make your conclusion more concrete and empower them to ask additional questions or pursue other options.
Here’s an example that uses the qualifier likely and then gives a concrete explanation of why the writer qualified the prediction:
- A lawsuit by Heather Green against her employer, Manzares & Cline LLP, will likely survive a motion to dismiss. Nonlawyer employees may sue for retaliation because it encourages reporting of illegal activities. But in-house counsel may not sue because lawyers have an independent ethical obligation to report illegal activity. Green, an associate, did not represent her employer as an attorney, as in-house counsel do. She is not under the same ethical obligation to report illegal activity and deserves the incentives provided by a retaliation suit.
So set your default at no qualifications, but when you must qualify, be clear about why.
_____ Bryan A. Garner, The Elements of Legal Style 35 (2d ed. 2002).  Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 381 (3d ed. 2011).  Andrew J. Turner, Helping Students Grow Professionally and Overcome Fear: The Benefits of Teaching Unqualified Brief Answers, 25 Perspectives: Teaching Leg. Res. & Writing 3, 4-5 (2016).