How to Improve Legal Writing

Make everything from emails to Supreme Court briefs sing

Improve written products from emails to Supreme Court briefs
kaan tanman/Getty Images.

Students in law school likely do not appreciate how vital written communication is in the legal field. Concerned as they are with developing legal research and analysis skills, law students sometimes do not focus on, or improve as they should, their writing ability. Those working in the legal field, whether as lawyers, legal staff, marketers, consultants, legislative drafters, legal secretaries, need to communicate well in writing.

Here’s how to improve written products from emails to Supreme Court briefs.

Lose your ego

Letting go of your words is perhaps the challenging task for any lawyer, or even any writer. If you are fortunate enough to have an editor, keep in mind that the editor’s job is to make your work better, stronger, more effective. Let the editor do that. Do not quibble over the editor’s changes, argue for keeping your original perfect prose, or exhort in your deepest voice that you are a graduate of a very prestigious law school. We’re all impressed. Now let the editor improve your work, and learn from the experience. Wait a day or a week to come back to the work and note how much better the revised version is than your original. If you need to, talk to the editor about why the revised version is stronger and more readable.

Learn from the masters

Absolutely, read works by winning lawyers, by Supreme Court justices who wrote majority opinions, by effective orators, by leaders in the world that you just happen to admire and wouldn’t mind emulating.

Learn, but also modify your own written work to suit your particular personality, your field, and your era. Keep your audience in mind and the type of communication you are drafting. Yes, we all know the hazards and lawsuits that could befall us simply by breathing. At the same time, though, we don’t want to read a legal treatise on calculations of damages in asthma cases when we are just clicking on a blog posting on your firm’s web page.

We are trying to learn more about you and your work and your record. Wait a while before making us quite aware what a blowhard you are. If you happen to be working on the damages phase of an asthma suits, then, well, dive right in. Otherwise, write for the appropriate audience—and remember that language has evolved, formality has eased, and readers tend to be looking for answers upfront, not on the 15,000th word.

Read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

So often, those working in the legal field get stuck getting started. They are inclined to craft the perfect first sentence, the ideal opening paragraph, the pluperfect introduction. In so doing, those legal writers lose precious time. Starting out should be much simpler. A writer’s work can begin with just a few words or ideas that should be included. From there, layer after layer can be added. Sure, I’d be humiliated if the general public were to read each iteration of any given work I’ve had published. The point is to get a work to the point where it can be disseminated successfully. Build up layer by layer. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird helps writers deal with the sense of overwhelm they might feel by the size of the task before them and gets them to the point where they can craft something good by starting with a scribble.

Follow Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way

Writing gets better the more we practice. It improves with time, maturity, experience. Writing on any given day can improve if the writer approaches an assignment with clarity after having dumped whatever mental detritus she carries elsewhere. Cameron shows writers, professional or otherwise, the way. She encourages the writing of morning pages where, essentially the writer is putting down whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t have to be good or make sense. Some people struggle just to get to three pages. If you have to, write your name over and over again. With diligence, however, putting words together will become much easier, as will communicating clearly. Your writing will improve after practicing with Julia Cameron via The Artist's Way.