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.