Are the legal writing classes you had in law school the last writing training you’ll need for your career?
If you practice bankruptcy law, was a law-school course the last bankruptcy training you’ll need? I know the answer to that because I was a bankruptcy lawyer before I became a legal-writing teacher. The answer is no. You’ll need to stay current on bankruptcy law; you’ll need to read the recent cases and keep up with changes in the Bankruptcy Code; you’ll need to keep your knowledge and skills sharp.
The same is true for legal writing.
Legal writing is like any skill or any substantive topic: there’s always more to learn, and there’s always room for improvement. Here’s how in six parts.
Admit the truth
When I was a full-time practicing lawyer, I thought I was a good writer. I believed I was above average within the profession. I was 8 years into my job as a legal writing teacher before I realized I hadn’t been very good at all. I had been quite mediocre. I was poorly educated about the standards of high-level professional writing, and I was ignorant of my own limitations.
Was I unique?
Probably not. Many practicing lawyers believe themselves to be good writers, above average within the profession. I’ll let you be the judge of whether most lawyers are above average. I’ll simply say this:
The first step to becoming a good legal writer is to admit you have room to improve.
Get some references
Once you’ve admitted you have room to improve your writing—that you still have things to learn—start learning. A great way to learn about writing is to consult the experts. When you have a question about writing, don’t rely on half-remembered “rules” from high school English class. Look it up. But where?
The Internet works, and here are two websites I like:
But if you’re serious about legal writing, you should own some reference books, and here are three I recommend:
- The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, by Bryan A. Garner
- The Texas Law Review Manual on Usage and Style
- Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for the Legal Writer, by Anne Enquist & Laurel Currie Oates
The idea is to have reliable references handy to answer questions: Do I need to capitalize appellant? How do I use the dash? Am I using shall (or which or ensure or infer or comprise) correctly? Plus, you inevitably increase your writing IQ whenever you serendipitously stumble upon an interesting entry.
Professional writers consult writing references, and you should, too.
Read the best books
If you’re really serious about improving, you’ll have to do more than consult references. You’ll have to study the principles of good writing and good legal writing. But how, when you’re busy?
Set a goal to read one book on writing every year. One per year. You can do that, right?
There are lots of good books on legal writing out there, and here are some I like:
- Legal Writing Nerd: Be One by Wayne Schiess
- Point Made by Ross Guberman
- The Elements of Legal Style, by Bryan A. Garner
- Lifting the Fog of Legalese by Joseph Kimble
These books are great sources of legal-writing knowledge, and they’re also well written. That’s why:
Reading the best books teaches you writing and exposes you to good writing.
Practice what you learn
You’re reading about writing and you’re consulting writing references. You’re becoming an informed legal writer. Now practice what you’re learning.
Of course, for any working lawyer, writing practice is part of the job: you’re writing all the time. Yet we all tend to rest on plateaus—we write in the same way we always have, with the same habits, the same mistakes. That’s why studying writing is so important. Practice without study is usually just repetition. So experiment with things you’re learning. Try new techniques and master new approaches to writing.
Through study and practice, you’ll become a better editor of your own work.
We all understand that editing is a crucial part of the writing process. Most of us (and don’t assume you’re the exception) can’t produce high-quality writing in one draft (or even two). We must edit, and here are two suggestions for doing it better.
First, leave plenty of time, even though it’ll be hard to do. One expert on legal writing, Bryan Garner, has acknowledged that “the modern practice of law does not tolerate the type of revisory process necessary to produce a polished product.” Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 533 (3d ed. 2011). That may be true, but you should still try to give yourself more time to edit. How much time? One pro recommends half the time on a writing project. Debra Hart May, Proofreading Plain and Simple 46 (1997). Can you afford that? Can your clients? It’s up to you, but more editing means better writing.
Second, use more than one technique when editing:
Do you edit on the computer screen?
- That’s fine, but it’s not enough. Do some editing on a hard copy, too; we read and react differently to screen text and printed text.
Do you read the text out loud?
- That’s great: you’re using your ears, not just your eyes, to help you edit. Now go further and have a trusted colleague read it and suggest some edits.
Do you read the document in reverse, from the last sentence to the first?
- Good. This technique tricks your mind, so you’re not familiar with the text; familiarity leads to poor editing. Now read only the topic sentences. Next read the opening and closing paragraphs.
Mediocre writing becomes good writing only through editing.
Now here’s the hardest part: seek and welcome critiques and candid suggestions for improving your writing. This one’s tough because it’s natural to be defensive about your writing—maybe even insecure. I know I am. But when I avoid critiques, I don’t improve much. I rest on a plateau.
So open yourself up to honest critique. Find a trusted colleague, friend, or supervisor, someone whose judgment and writing you respect. Then ask for suggestions and take them to heart.
The best writers are open to critique.