I did a whole lot of legal research and writing over the summer. The experience reinforced the notion that end goal of legal writing is a functional document with a defined purpose — whether to explain the state of the law on a particular issue, or convince a judge to issue a particular order.
When I started law school a year ago, I felt like I was learning to read and write all over again. In a way, I was. For those with that same feeling, I highly recommend The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing: Proven Tools and Techniques by Marie Buckley. The book practices what it preaches and presents well-organized tips on how to write effectively. The “How to Write” chapter of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law is a pithy collection of great writing advice, for those with less time. For those who aren’t so much into books (your loss), Judge Richard Kopf has an excellent post on writing to an audience on the federal bench.
I don’t have ten tips worth writing, but here are a handful of rules I try to stick to.
1. Don’t try to sound smart. It is painfully obvious when writers do so, and does not achieve the intended effect.
2. Be clear. In legal writing, certain terms have a very precise meaning. Make sure you are using them correctly.
3. Keep your sentences short. Your reader is usually a busy person whose goal is to extract useful information from what you’ve written and get on with his or her life. Short sentences make that task easier.
4. Organize your writing. I tend to front-load my paragraphs with the meat at the top and details below. I also use descriptive headings (but never presume that the reader will actually read them.)