Legal Writing

Keith Lee

Because I’m a glutton for punishment (I’m writing for ATL aren’t I?), every now and then I will trawl through SSRN to see if there is anything worthwhile to read. Usually there isn’t. Mostly it’s stuff like Harry Potter and the Law or whatever. It can be hard finding substantive, interesting material to read among the cruft. The other problem is that the authors are publishing articles in law reviews — which no one reads. It’s far better to submit an article to a blog (or set up your own), if you really want to reach people. I gather the point is not to be read, but instead to have an extra line on your résumé. But I digress.

I stumbled across an older (2003) article on the perceptions of various members of the profession on the writing skills of new lawyers entitled How Judges, Practitioners  and Legal Writing Teachers Assess the Writing Skills of New Law Graduates: A Comparative Study, by Susan Hanley Kosse and David T. Ritchie.

It is a rather broad study covering a number of issues that arise from the quality of legal writing among new lawyers. In particular how established members of the profession view the writing skills of new lawyers. So how did they fare?

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Bryan A. Garner

This May, Thomson Reuters published the tenth edition of the estimable Black’s Law Dictionary (affiliate link). The most widely cited legal book in the world, Black’s is a must-have for every lawyer and law student.

Henry Campbell Black published the first edition in 1891. Starting with the publication of the seventh edition in 1995, Black’s has been edited by Professor Bryan A. Garner, the noted lexicographer, legal-writing expert, and author of such books as Garner’s Modern American Usage, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, and Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (the last two co-authored with Justice Antonin Scalia (affiliate links)).

I met with Garner during his recent visit to New York, where he taught his famous legal-writing course to various law firms and government employers. His voice was hoarse from a summer cold, but he generously soldiered through an interview with the help of some tea. Here’s a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our conversation.

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Think you can write? Do these four things.

First, pull out the last brief that you wrote.

Not that one — that’s the final version, edited by guys who could write. We’re looking for your work, untouched by others. Find the unedited draft that you first circulated. (If you don’t have a draft brief handy, that’s okay. Find the last long email that you sent to someone who matters — to the partner, the client, the general counsel, or the CEO.)

Second, click through this link, which will tell you how to enable Microsoft Word’s “readability” feature on your computer. Enable that feature.

Third, let the readability feature score your work.

Finally, take a handkerchief and wipe the spit out of your eye. (I bet you didn’t realize that a computer could spit in your eye.)

You didn’t notice the spit? Here it comes: Compare your readability score to the average readability score for the works of bestselling authors. . . .

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Petitioner’s brief, unfortunately, was laden with obscure acronyms notwithstanding the admonitions in our handbook (and on our website) to avoid uncommon acronyms. Since the brief was signed by a faculty member at Columbia Law School, that was rather dismaying both because of ignorance of our standards and because the practice constitutes lousy brief writing.

– Judge Laurence Silberman of the D.C. Circuit, condemning a brief for an abundance of acronyms.

(More information — including the identity of the offending professor, and the full opinion — after the jump.)

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I’ve come under criticism recently, either expressly or implicitly.

I tell new lawyers to write in short sentences.

Very short.

My preferred writing style is “Modern American Snowplow.”

Others insist that I’m too strident. Mark Osbeck, who teaches legal writing at The University of Michigan Law School, has published a law review article (it’s the fourth one down) criticizing The Curmudgeon’s Guide To Practicing Law because my book over-emphasizes the need for short sentences.

I have two reactions. First, thank you! Let’s debate these issues in public! And, so long as you spell my name right, you’re doing us both a favor!

Second, I’m right, and you’re wrong! Why? Because I’ve never in my life reviewed the work of a new lawyer and thought: “This draft would be pretty good if only it used a bunch of longer sentences. The cure to what ails this brief is to add some complexity to it.” If you were honest with yourself, Professor Osbeck, you’d admit that you’ve never seen that, either. On the other hand, both you and I frequently see sentences that desperately need to buy a period. So what should we teach — the rule or the exception?

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At a law firm, law matters. Law is the center of the institution’s universe, and it’s all everyone is thinking about.

It’s the other functions that don’t matter: “Another email from IT? Telling me about interfaces and gigabytes? Why don’t those clowns leave me alone?”

“Another email from finance hectoring me about time sheets? Don’t those morons know I’m busy?”

At corporations, law (and compliance) is an “other function.” The businesses are concentrating on their businesses, and law and compliance — along with human resources, information technology, and finance — are, at best, a means to an end. If you mirror the other “shared services” and send incomprehensible communications to the businesses, the businesses will soon realize that you’re just one of the pests, meant to be ignored.

Inevitably, if a business person accidentally steps over some legal line, you’ll hear that the business guy had no clue that the line existed: “Yeah, yeah. Now that you’re telling me about it, I understand that we have that rule. But how was I to know? The rule is buried on the fourth page of some impenetrable policy hidden somewhere in our computer system. I spend my time selling; I can’t waste time trying to make sense of your legalese.”

If you don’t sympathize with that guy, then you’ve been a lawyer for too long. His criticism is not just an excuse for having violated the rules; his criticism may well be the truth. How can you change that reality?

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Have you ever made a typo? Have you ever misspelled something in a written document? Have you ever made a factual error? Chances are, if you are white and you made a mistake, the person reading it didn’t notice. Or if they noticed, they made an excuse for you. Don’t worry white folks, minor clerical errors won’t detract from your overall appearance of intelligence and competence.

But if you’re black, prepare to feel like an idiot. A new study shows that when law firm partners read identical memos, the partners who believed the author was white were much more forgiving than the partners who thought the author was black.

Hang on, I need to email this study to David Lat, Bryan Garner, my mom, Matt Levine, and Partner Emeritus, from my fake, white-person, @post.harvard.edu account, so they take it seriously….

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On Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit benchslapped a gaggle of lawyers for filing briefs with excessive acronyms. The court’s per curiam order directed the parties to “submit briefs that eliminate uncommon acronyms used in their previously filed final briefs.”

Alas, attempts to comply with this order have raised a new problem — a problem that some readers saw a mile away….

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The D.C. Circuit to counsel: readable briefs or GTFO. From an order filed today:

Who are the parties and their counsel? Additional information and the full order, after the jump.

(Also note the UPDATES — in defense of the lawyers, and floating a theory about the judge behind the benchslap — added to the end of this post.)

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Homework is hard.

Are you out of work and unable to get even the document review companies to look your way? Did you graduate from a lower-ranked law school and want the opportunity to prove you could have played with the big kids at a T14 school? Or maybe you just always thought elite law schools should work more like football teams in the South. Well, you’re in luck, because a T14 1L has taken to Craigslist seeking an experienced attorney (or at least a 2L/3L) to go ahead and tackle his or her homework assignment.

Once again, Craigslist found a way to lower the bar on the outlook for the legal market.

Go ahead and keep reading if you want to know where to send in your résumé. We won’t judge…

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