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Professional Development

14 Tips for Better Legal Writing

Michael David Bess


  • To become a skilled writer, you must read and adopt good writing styles. Review these 14 tips to improve your legal writing.
14 Tips for Better Legal Writing
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Let’s get one thing out of the way: I am not the best writer at my firm. I’m a good writer who is always looking to improve. My efforts to grow as a writer and to build a career allow me to offer a little advice for new lawyers who wish to do the same. Follow these tips, and you will become a go-to lawyer for writing assignments.

1. Read Good Writing and Adopt It

The quickest path to becoming a good writer is to read good writing and adopt styles that work. I have worked with incredibly gifted writers—judges and lawyers alike—and tried to incorporate their strengths into my writing. Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery but is also the most effective tool for improvement.

2. Nail the Introduction

Stating your case strongly and clearly at the beginning of a piece is critical. A strong introduction will ensure that the reader understands from the outset what outcome is warranted and why. The introduction should not have formal case citations, excessive details, or unnecessary distractions (such as unwieldy definitions or acronyms). When drafting the introduction, consider what you want the reader to do and why, and condense it into one or two pages.

3. Drop Unnecessary and Case-Specific Details

Too often, central points in briefs get lost amid unnecessary details. For example, there is typically no need to supply dates, party names, or other case-specific details when describing case authority. For every fact or detail included, the writer should ask: “Is this necessary for the reader to understand the point?”

4. Don’t Use Inflammatory Language

There is no greater turn-off to judges than abusive, inflammatory, or foul language. The writer loses credibility when advancing ad hominem attacks or incendiary and exaggerated arguments.

5. Make Your Brief User-Friendly

Use record citations that are easy to understand so the judge can check the record easily. If referring to the adversary’s argument, always insert a citation for the pages where the argument appears.

6. Avoid Excessive Quotations and Block Quotes

Lengthy block quotes are not persuasive and disrupt an argument. Make quotations count to bolster their persuasive impact. Paraphrasing should be the norm.

7. Don’t Recap Legal Standards Unnecessarily

Including three pages on the summary judgment standard is unnecessary. Judges know it well. Lengthy, boilerplate recitations of law are a waste, especially when working against page limits.

8. Be Discriminating in Advancing Arguments

Writers should be selective in what arguments to advance. Unless preservation is an issue, a writer should advance only good arguments, not every argument under the sun.

9. Check Topic Sentences

Paragraphs must flow logically from their first sentence. Otherwise, your argument will not make sense.

10. Be Organized

A brief can follow all the rules listed above but will fail if the points are not organized logically and clearly.

11. Promote Your Writing

Effective writing is important to clients. It can save them a lot of money (there is no better news for a client than prevailing on a motion to dismiss) or save the day on appeal. If you are at a firm, send your writing samples to partners to show them how you can help their clients.

12. Work on Trials and Appeals

Try to diversify your workload. I have worked on dispositive motions, trial teams as a motion writer, and appeals. These require different skills, but acquiring a greater range of skills will make you more marketable.

13. Solicit Outside Opinions

Solicit critical analysis of your writing. The best writers I’ve worked with shared a common trait: They all know they can improve. Good writers throw out their egos and seek feedback and opinions from others because the effectiveness of a brief is determined solely by the reader.

14. Print This Article and Carry It Everywhere You Go

Or at least keep these tips handy and review them often. Soon, colleagues will be asking for your opinion and editing prowess.

If you want more writing advice from an expert, Marie Buckley’s The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing is a readable, concrete guide to contemporary legal writing.