6 Tips To Improve Your Legal Writing in Law School: Legal writing and analysis is a type of writing in which we are trying to analyze a particular issue, educate, and, in some cases, persuade the reader. Therefore, by nature, the approach that you will take in legal writing is very particular. And, because legal writing is particular, it can help to remember some general rules and tips to improve your legal writing in law school.
6 Tips To Improve Your Legal Writing in Law School
1. Use active voice.
First, as we discussed in a previous article, you want to write using ‘active’ voice and avoid passive voice. Remember that in active voice, the “subject” of the sentence is doing the action. For example, in the sentence “The little girl ate the ice cream”, the subject of the sentence (girl) is doing the action/verb (ate) the ice cream. Active voice is important because it focuses the reader more directly on the point(s) you are making, and uses fewer words than passive voice.
2. Write in shorter sentences and paragraphs.
Speaking of using fewer words, in legal writing, you also want to use shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs. Unlike long running sentences, a shorter sentence keeps the reader’s attention. And, it is actually easier for the reader to remember the information you are attempting to convey in a shorter sentence. This is important, especially when you attempting to make an argument and persuade the reader.
In addition, even to the ‘eye’, a reader perceives a long running sentence/paragraph as too much information to wade through. You want to avoid making the reader ‘do the work’ of sifting through longer sentences and paragraphs to find the main points you are trying to make.
When the reader has to do the work of finding the important law and analysis, and/or arguments which you are presenting, he/she will become bored or frustrated and quickly lose attention. If you are writing a brief and making an argument to the court, you definitely do not want your reader (i.e. judge(s)) to become bored or frustrated with your argument. Always remember to use shorter sentences and paragraphs.
3. Avoid using contractions.
It may sound like a small point, but you also want to avoid using any contractions in legal writing. Legal writing tends to be a more formal style of writing. When you use contractions however, it can sound more casual. Thus, if you have a sentence where you are stating: “The court determined that the defendant wasn’t guilty of the crime”, you want to change the “wasn’t” to “was not.”
4. Do not use first person pronouns.
Next, in legal writing, you want to avoid first person pronouns. For example, if you are writing a Memorandum, you would avoid saying something like: “It is my opinion that in our case, the client should prevail.” Instead, you would rephrase and say, for example, “In the present matter, in light of the preceding analysis, it is likely that the client will prevail.” You also want to be careful to avoid sentences in which you use only pronouns.
Take a look at the following sentence. “Although they alleged that he had run through the red light and totaled their corvette, they found that he was not liable for any of their injuries.” Huh?? Do you see how confusing this sentence is? The reader will never understand…who is each ’he’ and who is each ‘they’ to which the sentence refers? It is therefore important to self –edit and make sure that you avoid multiple sentences with only pronouns.
5. Treat your potential readers as naive.
It is also important to remember that your reader is a ‘naïve’ reader. This means that when you analyze a given legal issue, you never want to assume that the reader will know or understand the points that you are trying to make. You want to be sure that you are including enough detail for the reader both when you explain a given case or statute, and when you analyze said law—that is when you apply the law to the facts of your client’s case. It is also important to know that a ‘naïve’ reader may include your supervising attorney or even the judge. If the reader is not familiar with the issue(s) about which you are writing, then he/she is naïve. And, it is your responsibility to educate the reader.
6. Leave time to self-edit and perfect your writing.
In light of the preceding rules and tips, it is also important to remember to consistently self-edit your finished product. In the best case scenario, let us say, for example, that you have a Memorandum due on a Friday. Give yourself a deadline of two days earlier–Wednesday. Let Thursday be your day to ‘self-edit’, so that you have time to review your finished product. You will be surprised how developing the good habit of ‘self-editing will improve your writing overall. You will start to become more comfortable in applying the preceding tips and reminders which will both make you more aware of your own approach to legal writing, and take your analysis and writing to the next level.
Using just these 6 simple tips can vastly improve your legal writing in law school.
This post was written by Professor K. Day. Ms. K. Day teaches legal writing to first, second and third year law students at Wayne State University Law School. She teaches both basic and advanced legal writing skills. Ms. Day also served as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Legal Practice at Peking University School of Transnational Law in Shenzhen, China where she assisted in the design and implementation of the Legal Practice Program for the first western style law school in China.