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.” 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
 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.
 See id.
 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).
 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.
 The Inverted Pyramid Structure, Purdue Online Writing Lab, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/journalism_and_journalistic_writing/the_inverted_pyramid.html.
 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..