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5 Tips to Improve Your Legal Writing

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Lawyers are writers. A majority of legal work involves some form of writing, whether it's an email to a client, a brief for the court, or a memo for a partner. Yet, there's often little attention paid to the craft of writing, despite its central role in an attorney's practice.

Well crafted writing can help set you apart from the crowd and make you a more effective practitioner -- but it's a skill that takes work to develop. With that in mind, here are five tips for writing better:

1. Be Concise

A memo to a partner is usually not the time to discuss the development of habeas corpus from the Magna Carta to the present. Nor do you often need to discuss the scholarly debate surrounding, say, standing. Focus on what matters and keep things short and tight.

2. Don't Assume Your Audience Is Knowledgeable

If you're writing for other lawyers, it can be easy to assume that they have a basic familiarity with the issue. Don't. Craft your writing as though you were communicating with a lay audience, starting with the basics and working up towards the more complex issues. How can you balance this with the need to stay concise? Do it just for the question at hand, not anything superfluous.

3. Your Perspective Should be Neutral and Objective

Yes, you're an advocate, but in your capacity as an advisor it's often not your advocacy that's being sought, it's your legal knowledge. That knowledge needs to be expressed neutrally and objectively. Don't emphasize the cases most favorable for a client but present a fair overview of the legal landscape. Also make sure to attribute opinions and analysis that are not your own. If you are integrating information from a study, white paper, or journal, explain not just the conclusions, but how they were reached.

4. Step Away

It's easy to gloss over our own mistakes, or to think that our writing clearly and fully explains an issue. Before you submit something, step away for awhile. Return after a few hours or even a day and approach it with fresh eyes. The more distance you have from your writing, the easier it can be to spot writing errors or gaps in analysis.

5. Put Down the Thesaurus and Avoid Legalese

The goal of your writing should be readability, whether you're writing for clients, the court, or others in your firm. The more obscure your words are, the less readable your writing becomes. Don't weigh your writing down with obscure Latin phrases, excessive legal wording, or highfaluting synonyms. Say "imprisonment," for example, instead of "term of immurement."

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