Legal writing is a skill that takes time to hone. But learning a few basic principles can dramatically improve your legal writing skills and help you to become a better writer in law school.
Write short, concise sentences to Become a Better Writer in Law School
Readability is key in law school and in practice. Once you graduate, you will primarily be writing for judges and clients.
With ever-growing dockets, especially post-pandemic, judges simply don’t have time to make sense of bad writing or reread long sentences.
Likewise, your clients will often be laypeople. So in either case, lengthy sentences and unnecessarily difficult words are disfavored.
Legal writing should not be hard to parse. Unlike academic writing, your legal writing style should be straightforward and easy to read.
Get Rid of Unnecessary Words to Become a Better Writer in Law School
I once heard an undergraduate professor proclaim that he could write a 5,000-word essay about his belly button. That’s a problem.
Nobody wants to read that, and at some point, you must be adding unnecessary filler words.
Every student has done this during undergrad: finished an essay and added unnecessary words and quotes to meet the page limit.
Concise writing isn’t as valued in undergrad, in one sense, because Professors are helping students to gain exposure and comfort in writing longer documents.
However, most of the documents that attorneys submit to court have strict page limits. And, again, no judge has time to read needless fluff.
So now is a great time to break the habit of adding extra content and learn to edit your work to remove irrelevant information or words.
Get to the Point to Become a Better Writer in Law School
In the same vein, it’s important to quickly let your audience know the point of your writing. This might mean starting with your conclusion, restating the conclusion throughout, and using clear language to make your conclusion easily understandable.
For example, if you are writing a memorandum for a partner, you should state your conclusion as early as possible. You might even state it in the first sentence and then provide a brief summary of why you came to that conclusion.
Then go on to explain in more detail the relevant case law and legal analysis.
Remember: everything is about readability. Structuring a memo–or any legal document–in this way will help the partner to quickly understand the issue. She will appreciate having an overview of what she is about to read.
Similarly, if you are writing for a judge, let her know as soon as possible the relief you are seeking and summarize why you are entitled to that relief. Then make your argument and provide a more detailed legal analysis later in the brief.
Structure your Writing with Readability in Mind
Legal Research and Writing courses teach students how to write a very thorough memorandum, but–as your professor has likely noted–most partners won’t ask you for all the elements of a classic legal memo. They teach you how to write the entire thing in case you do encounter an old-school partner who expects that.
Instead, most partners will want a memorandum that communicates the necessary information as quickly as possible.
If you are writing for a partner, be sure to ask her what format she prefers. Then, spend time thinking about which headings and subheadings will guide the reader to quickly understand the materials and find the most relevant analyses.
Likewise, attorneys often have a lot of freedom in structuring their motions and briefs. So learning this skill now is critical to improving your legal writing.
Know Common Grammatical and Spelling Errors
Along with readability, credibility is key to successful legal writing. For me, nothing detracts from the message more than grammatical and spelling errors.
My personal pet peeves are comma splices and improper comma usage.
A comma splice is:
a particular kind of comma mistake that happens when you use a comma to join two independent clauses.Grammarly.com
In other words, this type of punctuation error occurs when you join two sentences that could stand on their own with a comma. Here is an example.
Legal Writing is really important, it is different from academic writing.
Instead, this should be punctuated with a period, a semi-colon, or coordinating conjunction. Here are some proper ways to punctuate the same sentences:
Legal writing is really important. It is different from academic writing.
Legal writing is really important; it is different from academic writing.
Legal writing is really important, and it is different from academic writing.
Some people find semi-colons distracting, so I recommend using them sparingly. Opt for a period or conjunction instead.
Misusing Coordinating Conjunctions
There are seven coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. Many people remember these using a mnemonic device: “FANBOYS.”
A coordinating conjunction is a conjunction that allows
you to join words, phrases, and clauses of equal grammatical rank in a sentence.Grammarly.com
When you join two independent clauses, you should place a comma before the coordinating conjunction, like so:
Legal writing is a difficult skill, and many students struggle with it.
However, if you are joining other types of clauses, you do not need a comma. For example:
Many students struggle with legal writing and other first-year courses.
Note also, that “however” is not a coordinating conjunction.
Right: Many students struggle with legal writing. However, the subject becomes easier with each passing year.
Wrong: Many students struggle with legal writing, however, the subject becomes easier with each passing year.
Confusing Common Words
Law students should know the difference between words like:
Council & Counsel
Principal & Principle
Perspective & Prospective
Affect & Effect
You can find a fairly extensive list of commonly confused words and their meanings here.
Lawyers and law students aren’t expected to know the ins and outs of the English language in the same way that an English teacher would. However, we can improve our legal writing by having a solid grasp of some basic rules.
Consider Reading the Elements of Style to Become a Better Writer in Law School
The Elements of Style taught me a lot about writing in general, and I found it invaluable in honing my legal research and writing skills.
I really can’t say enough about this book, and I recommend you check it out if you are interested in strengthening your writing. Plus, it’s a great conversation starter since so many attorneys have read it!
Note that this section contains affiliate links, which means I will get paid a small commission if you click on a link and subsequently make a purchase.
No pressure whatsoever, but if you are considering purchasing The Elements of Style, please consider using one of my links. This helps me run my blog, and all opinions remain my own.
Conclusion to How to Be a Better Writer in Law School
Legal writing is a skill that every student struggles with. It takes years to master legal writing, and even the best writers realize that there is always room for improvement.
- Your audience;
- To keep it concise and straightforward; and
- To ensure your grammar and spelling are impeccable.
And you’ll be well on your way to becoming a better writer in law school.
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