Category Archives: Law Practice

Over-simplified writing advice, 1

Part 1 of 4

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

I recently read some writing advice offered by a capable lawyer with 10 years’ experience. The advice was offered in absolute terms, and I thought it was oversimplified. Here’s the advice with my own take.

“Never use adverbs.”

You can’t follow this advice literally. It’s not possible to write a memo or motion or brief and never use an adverb.[1] Based on the examples the lawyer gave, what the lawyer probably meant was something more like avoid over-using adverbs. But for a sophisticated legal writer, even that advice is too simple. I’d offer something more like don’t overuse intensifiers and qualifiers in legal writing.

I’ve written about intensifiers (clearly, extremely, blatantly):

and a modified version of those three posts appeared in a Michigan Bar Journal article

I’ve also written about using qualifiers (probably, somewhat, typically):

My view is that for high-caliber, sophisticated legal writing, absolute prohibitions typically aren’t the best advice. Inform yourself about the advice, consider your audience and purpose, and exercise your editorial judgment.

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

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[1] In fact, in an example legal document the lawyer displayed for some other point, there were three adverbs in the first four sentences. All three uses were appropriate; I’m just pointing out that it’s not reasonable to advise, “Never use adverbs.”

Beginning with “but”

There’s no rule against beginning a sentence with but.

Sure, it’s a wise admonition from middle-school English teachers that novice writers avoid beginning a series of sentences with but.

  • In July we went to Six Flags. But it rained that day. But my mom said we could go again later. But by August, we didn’t have time. But I really wanted to go.

In high school, many English teachers embrace the beginning but. My son’s 9th-grade English teacher included “beginning with a conjunction” in a list of writing techniques, offering this example, But how could this be? and requiring students to create their own examples.

What? Teaching kids it’s okay to begin a sentence with but? No wonder writing skills are in decline and college students (not to mention law students) don’t write well.

But wait.

I applaud this high-school teacher, and he’s in line with the general view of numerous writing authorities.

I’ve made this point before: Lite Connectors, Austin Lawyer 13 (Dec. 2008 / Jan. 2009). I won’t rehash the sources I quoted there, but I’ll refer you to Bryan A. Garner, On Beginning Sentences with But, Mich. B.J. 43 (Oct. 2003); The Chicago Manual of Style (“a perfectly proper word to open a sentence”); and the Internet, where a Google search for “beginning with but” turns up many reputable authorities recommending the practice.

As with many writing “rules,” the truth is that beginning with but isn’t about wrong or right; it’s about formality, emphasis, and style. So don’t uncritically apply this nonrule. Think about your writing goals and options and decide how you want to use the language.

Let’s start with formality. Although we should be comfortable beginning with but in e-mail messages, print correspondence, and inter-office memos, some lawyers avoid the practice in formal documents like motions, briefs, and judicial opinions. Yet the technique has been used in formal legal documents for centuries. Here are some examples.

From a judicial opinion in 2013:

  • “But this case has nothing to do with federalism.” City of Arlington v. FCC, 569 U.S. 290, 305 (2013).

From a judicial opinion in 1901:

  • “But this is not sufficient.” Colburn v. Grant, 181 U.S. 601, 607 (1901).

From a judicial opinion in 1793:

“But this redress goes only half way.” Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. 419, 422 (1793).

From an appellate brief in 2003:

  • “But the EPA cannot claim that ADEC’s decision was unreasoned.” Alaska Dept. of Envtl. Conservation v. EPA, 2003 WL 2010655 at 46 (U.S. Pet. Brief 2003).

And from the U.S. Constitution:

  • “But in all such Cases the Votes of both Houses shall be determined by yeas and Nays . . . .” U.S. Const. art. I, § 7.

In fact, the Constitution has seven sentences beginning with but.

If we accept that beginning with but is appropriate for formal legal documents, then it becomes a tool we can use to manage emphasis. Using the example from Arlington v. FCC, note the differing emphases in these three versions:

  1. But this case has nothing to do with federalism. (succinctly emphasizes the contrast)
  2. However, this case has nothing to do with federalism. (contrasts but moves more slowly)
  3. This case, however, has nothing to do with federalism. (even slower and emphasizes this case)

You can do more than use the technique for emphasis. Once you’re comfortable beginning with but, you can use it to create readable, crisp transitions that quickly orient the reader to a change of direction. For crisp transitions, yet is a great word to begin with, too.

From a judicial opinion in 1968:

  • “Yet we see no possible rational basis.” Glona v. Am. Guarantee & Liab. Ins. Co., 391 U.S. 73, 75 (1968).

Yes, you can begin with however or in contrast or on the other hand. They’re fine. But now we know that beginning with but is fine for formal legal documents, gives us a tool for managing emphasis, and makes a great connector.

After all, there’s no rule against beginning a sentence with but.

Write Better Faster

Six tips and techniques

A recurring question I get from lawyers, law students, and other readers is how to implement the best writing advice while writing under harsh deadlines and heavy workloads. “I want to write better,” these lawyers say, “and I know the things you recommend are good. But I just don’t have the time.”

A variation of this question is this comment: “Even if I had the time, the client won’t want to pay my fee if I take the time necessary to implement all the writing techniques you recommend.” So the ultimate question is this: “How can I write better faster?”

I present here some  advice I usually give combined with the best ideas from real lawyers who deal with real clients and real deadlines.

Spend time on an outline. But outlining will slow things, down, right? No. A good outline, especially one that has complete sentences, will make the composing go faster, according to the author of The Psychology of Writing, Ronald Kellogg.[1] The more detailed the outline, the faster the composing will go. The better the outline, the less time you’ll have to spend re-ordering. The earlier you start the outline, the more payoff you’ll get from outlining.[2]

Learn to compose rapidly. Get a draft down fast by shutting out your internal editor or “judge.” Save editing for later. Just write, and write fast. Compose in quiet or after work hours, away from distractions. And try training yourself to type faster—75 words per minute at least. If you’re unable to improve your typing speed (and I’ll confess it’s been tough for me), try voice-recognition software. I once brought a major project in on time by speaking it into voice-recognition software. Yes, I was working from a detailed outline.

Raise your writing IQ. Attend legal-writing CLE courses, read books on legal writing, and study the best sources on English and legal-word usage. Your goal is to speed up both composing and editing. The more you know, the fewer writing slips you’ll make while composing. And although you’ll never consider a first draft a final product, your first drafts will get better and better. So then you’ll save time on editing, too.

Thoroughly understand the material (or write what you know). Writing goes faster if you know the subject well. For example, when I writing about legal writing, I zoom. When I write about a topic that’s new to me, I plod. It’s natural. So if you’re not consistently able to write about subjects you know well, you must master the material in order to write quickly.

Establish and stick to deadlines. Create and follow a routine for completing all major writing projects, with deadlines for researching, outlining, composing, and editing-revising. For editing, create an evolving checklist of everything you know you’ll need to check. As you raise your writing IQ and as you work and re-work your routine, your editing checklist will grow—but also shrink.

Stop making excuses. Don’t blame mediocre writing on short deadlines or heavy workloads. Find a way to make the time to edit and revise extensively; revising is the only way to make mediocre writing good and good writing great. Work late, work weekends, or eat the hours if you think the client won’t pay. Even decline projects if you must. But do the work necessary to produce a well-polished product. If you do it right every time, you’ll get faster at doing it right. If you never or rarely do it right, you won’t get faster.

I hope one or more of these techniques will work for you, so you can write better faster.

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

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[1] Ronald T. Kellogg, The Psychology of Writing 125-26, 130-31 (1994).

[2] Wayne Schiess, Should You Outline? Austin Lawyer 11 (Oct. 2015); Wayne Schiess, Outlining Effectively, Austin Lawyer 11 (Nov. 2015).

 

The passive voice … is used by lawyers.

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

The passive voice is frequently censured and widely condemned. Why is so much bad press received by the passive voice? Oops. Why does the passive voice receive so much bad press?

Lawyers overuse it, and its overuse makes for wordy, dull writing.

Quick review: The passive voice relies on a be verb (most commonly was, were, and been) plus a past-tense verb (technically past participle). All the following are in the passive voice (be verb and past-tense verb in italics):

  • Mistakes were made.
  • The contract was signed.
  • The DNA has been collected.

By the way, a sentence like The statute is applicable might be undesirable (I’d prefer The statute applies) but it’s not in the passive voice. Yes, it has a be verb (is), but applicable isn’t a verb.

In the examples, we can see a key feature of the passive voice: The doer of the verb is not the subject of the sentence. In fact, the doer of the verb is missing from the sentence entirely. Mistakes were made. Who made them? We don’t know. We can put the doer of the verb into a passive-voice sentence, but we have to attach the doer with a prepositional phrase at the end:

  • Mistakes were made by my staff.
  • The contract was signed by Christina Duran.
  • The DNA has been collected by Officer Kiser.

In the active voice, these sentences would be more vigorous and more concise:

  • My staff made mistakes.
  • Christina Duran signed the contract.
  • Officer Kiser has collected the DNA.

Now we can explain the bad press. When we overuse the passive voice in legal writing, we produce dull prose two ways: We rob the writing of doers, of actors, of action. Stuff just happens—no one does it. Or we name the doers, but they’re tacked on at the end—something was done by someone. That’s wordy.

Hiding the doer and producing wordy prose can be bad things in legal writing, and the experts agree:

“The passive voice results in a wordier sentence … and often obscures the actor.”1

“The passive voice creates two problems. It uses more words than active voice, and it risks creating ambiguity.”2

“Generally, prefer the active voice over the passive voice for several reasons: It is more concise.… It uses a more vigorous verb.”3

But we don’t forbid all passive-voice constructions; the passive voice has legitimate uses, and here are three.

  1. The doer of the action is unknown or irrelevant. The police were notified. We don’t know or care who notified the police; we’re just saying they were notified.
  2. The focus is on the recipient of the action, and the doer of the action is unimportant. Treyco’s account was frozen, not Mercury’s account. This sentence focuses on which account was frozen, not on who did the freezing.
  3. The appearance of responsibility is being avoided. The emails have been deleted. This sentence hides the one who did the deleting. Avoiding the appearance of responsibility is occasionally useful in legal writing. But if you use the passive voice to avoid responsibility a lot, your readers will figure it out.

So the passive voice isn’t wrong; it has legitimate uses in legal writing. It is overused by lawyers (passive). Lawyers overuse it (active). So when you edit your writing, check for passive-voice constructions—maybe do a search for was and were. When you spot the passive voice, ask yourself, “Do I need the passive voice here?” If you don’t, the active voice will be more vigorous and more concise.

Wayne Schiess’s books: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One, Plain Legal Writing: Do It.

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1. Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 659 (3d ed. 2011).

2. Richard C. Wydick & Amy E. Sloan, Plain English for Lawyers 29 (6th ed. 2019).

3. Laurel Currie Oates & Anne Enquist, The Legal Writing Handbook 514-15 (5th ed. 2010).

Reducing legal-writing clutter with (cleaned up)

Have you heard of (cleaned up)—the daring new explanatory parenthetical?

Suppose you’re writing a piece of legal analysis and you need to quote a case that’s quoting another case. And suppose you choose to omit some words and alter the original a bit. Under Bluebook rules, you’d cite the case you’re quoting as well as the underlying source, and you’d show every alteration and omission. Those are the rules. So you might end up with something like this:

The Court has previously observed that “[t]he failure to affirmatively establish the fact sought does not ‘prevent the cross-examination from having . . . probative value in regard to the witness’s credibility.’” Henry v. State, 343 S.W.3d 282, 288 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018) (quoting Cawdery v. State, 583 S.W.2d 705, 710 (Tex. Crim. App. 1979)).

But what if you could delete the brackets, the ellipses, and the quotation within a quotation? What if you could omit the underlying source and the parenthetical it’s embedded in? Would that be okay, as long as you told the reader you “cleaned up” what would otherwise be a messy quotation? If you did, it might look like this:

The Court has previously observed that “the failure to affirmatively establish the fact sought does not prevent the cross-examination from having probative value in regard to the witness’s credibility.” Henry v. State, 343 S.W.3d 282, 288 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018) (cleaned up).

That cleaner, neater version was the goal of attorney Jack Metzler when he invented the “cleaned up” explanatory parenthetical in 2017. Metzler has also written a law-review article about (cleaned up). The idea was to make quotations easier to read and to reduce words and bibliographic clutter. So this original—

Above all, “[c]ourts presume that the Legislature ‘ “understands and correctly appreciates the needs of its own people, that its laws are directed to problems made manifest by experience, and that its discriminations are based upon adequate grounds.” ’ ” Enron Corp. v. Spring Indep. Sch. Dist., 922 S.W.2d 931, 934 (Tex. 1996) (quoting Smith v. Davis, 426 S.W.2d 827, 831 (Tex. 1968) (quoting Texas Nat’l Guard Armory Bd. v. McCraw, 126 S.W.2d 627, 634 (Tex. 1939))).

would look like this—

Above all, “courts presume that the Legislature understands and correctly appreciates the needs of its own people, that its laws are directed to problems manifest by experience, and that its discriminations are based on adequate grounds.” Enron Corp. v. Spring Indep. Sch. Dist., 922 S.W.2d 931, 934 (Tex. 1996) (cleaned up).

Metzler’s idea was a hit. Lawyers and judges have started using (cleaned up), and it has appeared in dozens of appellate briefs and judicial opinions in Texas, as well as in other state courts and federal courts. Metzler’s rules for (cleaned up) appeared in the Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, and they’re quoted in full at the bottom of this post. But here’s a quick summary: Using (cleaned up) means that in quoting, the author—

  • has removed extraneous, non-substantive material such as brackets, quotation marks, ellipses, footnote numbers, and internal citations,
  • has changed capitalization without indicating the changes, and
  • has made changes that enhance readability while otherwise faithfully reproducing the quoted text.

Bottom line: using (cleaned up) makes quoting and citing easier and aids reading, too.

But beware. When you use (cleaned up), your credibility is on the line. You’re saying, “I haven’t altered this quotation unethically, and I haven’t done anything dishonest or underhanded.” If you use (cleaned up) to change the quotation in ways that misrepresent the original text, your credibility is gone.

Of course, that’s true of anything you cite or quote: if you’ve exaggerated, fudged, or lied, someone—judge, staff attorney, clerk, opposing counsel—will find you out. So consider (cleaned up) and join me in hoping the next edition of the Bluebook takes note.

Get Wayne Schiess’s books:

Legal Writing Nerd: Be One
Plain Legal Writing: Do It

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Proposed Bluebook Rule 5.4: Cleaning up Quotations:

(a) Cleaning up. When language quoted from a court decision contains material quoted from an earlier decision, the quotation may, for readability, be stripped of internal quotation marks, brackets, ellipses, internal citations, and footnote reference numbers; the original sources of quotations within the quotation need not be cited parenthetically; and capitalization may be changed without brackets. Indicate these changes parenthetically with (cleaned up). Other than the changes specified, the text of the quotation after it has been cleaned up should match the text used in the opinion cited. If the quotation is altered further, indicate the changes or omissions according to Rules 5.2 and 5.3.

(b) Cleaning up intermediary case citations. In addition to the alterations described in Rule 5.4(a), when a quoted passage quotes a second case quoting a third case, the citation to the middle case may be omitted to show that the first court quoted the third. To indicate this change, retain the quotation marks around the material quoted from the third case and any alterations that were made to the quotation, and insert (cleaned up) before the “quoting” parenthetical citation to the third case. Indicate any alterations that were made to language quoted from the third case according to Rules 5.2 and 5.3.

Jack Metzler, Cleaning Up Quotations, 18 J. App. Prac. & Process 143, 154-55 (2017).