Category Archives: Law Practice

Student Essay: Read the News

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] See id.

[3] 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).

[4] 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.

[5] The Inverted Pyramid Structure, Purdue Online Writing Lab, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/journalism_and_journalistic_writing/the_inverted_pyramid.html.

[6] 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..

Student Essay: Mistakes Matter

Mistakes Matter

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.

Creating Shorthand References (hereinafter “CSR”)

Advice for creating shorthand references

My books: Legal Writing Nerd and Plain Legal Writing

In legal documents, we sometimes need to create shorthand references for recurring names. For example, it’s not unusual for a legal document to begin like this:

Plaintiffs Roger T. Howard (hereinafter “Howard”) and Leticia Howard (hereinafter “Leticia” and, together with Howard, the “Plaintiffs” or “Howards”) brought this action against and Southern National Bank (hereinafter “SNB”) and Green Fields Agricultural Company (hereinafter “GFAC”).

That’s a cluttered paragraph, but it’s not unusual. Sometimes lawyers are guilty of “painstakingly (and painfully) shortening every label on the landscape. Such a practice invites ridicule, especially after six or seven names have been defined, names that could never be confused with any others anyway.”[1]

That’s why some legal-writing experts say that creating shorthands with a parenthetical isn’t even necessary.[2] These rebels note that journalists and other writers would never do this:

President Joe Biden (the “President” or “Biden”) is expected to speak at a Memorial Day observance in Delaware this weekend….

I agree with these experts, but I’ve been unable to persuade many lawyers of this view. They say that there’s typically more at stake in a legal document (rights, duties, money, liberty) than in a news article, and legal documents place a high value on precision. So it’s natural that legal documents would contain shorthand references, and in this column I offer guidelines for creating them.

Drop the archaic word hereinafter. Simply give the full term and then the shorthand, like this: Southern National Bank (“SNB”).

Some writers drop quotation marks from the parenthetical, asserting that the defining purpose is obvious.[3] Others retain them—to clarify that the parenthetical is a defining one and not a parenthetical used for some other purpose. My view: retaining quotation marks is harmless.

Don’t create a shorthand and never use it—which happens more often than it should. Of course, it results from one of two causes: the habit of shorthanding everything upon first use without checking for subsequent use; and the result of edits that remove later uses. So as part of a thorough edit, do a search for every shorthand you’ve created. If only one shows up, delete it.

Generally avoid alternative shorthands: Roger T. Howard (“Howard” or “Plaintiff”). It’s like saying, “I’m not going to be careful, so you keep track.” Alternative forms likely arise when the writer use a form document and doesn’t want to search and replace. Do the replacing.

If the client, person, or party refers to itself in a certain way, use that form—don’t make up your own. If Green Field Marketing Company refers to itself as “GFMC,” use that. But if the company refers to itself as Green Field, use that. Don’t create unnecessary initials, although initials have their uses.

Suppose the document mentions Southern National Bank, Southern Mortgage Company, and Southern Real Estate. You could use those full names throughout—it wouldn’t be the end of the world—but you might need initials: SNB, SMC, SRE. And what if two people have the same surname? A common convention is to use given names: Roger and Leticia. Of course, using Ms. Howard and Mr. Howard is fine if the parties are spouses.

Legal writing (“LW”) already abounds with initials and acronyms (“IA”), so when you have a choice, default to words. Naturally, use well-recognized initials (NCAA, CBS) and acronyms (CERCLA, ERISA); otherwise, try to use use words. If the party is Southern National Bank, the short form “Southern” is easier to read than “SNB.”

A final tip: Try to avoid larding the opening paragraph with a half dozen defined terms. It’s actually okay to create a shorthand on the second reference. Use the opening paragraph to set the stage, provide background, or summarize your purpose.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd and Plain Legal Writing

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[1] Karen Larsen, The Miss Grammar Guidebook 42 (Oregon State Bar 1994).

[2] Stephen V. Armstrong & Timothy P. Terrell, Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing 268 (2003); Howard Darmstadter, Hereof, Thereof, and Everywhereof: A Contrarian Guide to Legal Drafting 139 (2002).

[3] Louise Mailhot & James D. Carnwath, Decisions, Decisions: A Handbook for Judicial Writing 37 (1998).

Over-simplified writing advice, 4

Part 4 of 4

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

I recently heard a speaker criticize the following advice as “oversimplified”:

“Write short sentences.”

The speaker characterized it as “common writing advice.” I think this supposedly common advice is a straw target—a target that legal-writing teachers and experts don’t actually advise and that the speaker set up to be easily knocked down. Here’s my own take.

The best advice is to aim for an average sentence length in the low 20s. Here’s what experts say about average sentence length in legal writing:

  • below 25—Richard Wydick in Plain English for Lawyers
  • about 22—Anne Enquist & Laurel Curie Oates in Just Writing: Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for the Legal Writer
  • about 20—Bryan A. Garner in Legal Writing in Plain English

That’s average. Some sentences would be longer, some shorter. I haven’t found any experts advising a maximum sentence length, but for me, it’s 45 words. Anything longer risks losing the reader.

Other than that, the experts recommend varying your sentence length:

  • You want some longer sentences and some shorter ones.1
  • Varying your sentence lengths is generally a good idea.2
  • Keep the sentences shorter to create a sense of movement and make them easy to read, but vary length to avoid monotony.3

The occasional very short sentence (3 to 7 words) stands out and creates emphasis. The occasional long sentence—probably in a strict, parallel, three-part series—is memorable.

That’s the real advice. No one actually says “Write short sentences” without further clarification or explanation.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It

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1. Bryan A. Garner, LawProse Lesson #269: Average sentence length.

2. Joseph Regalia, The Art of Legal Writing: The Sentence, Appellate Advocacy Blog (May 19, 2018).

3. Ellie Margolis, 10 top tips for legal writing, Before the Bar (Nov. 7, 2019).