Writing Tools that Every Lawyer Needs to Have

July 2, 2018 § 7 Comments

Judge Griffis had this post on his blog last month, and I think it’s a list that both lawyers and judges can benefit from.

16 books judges should own if they want to write well

Here is a link to an article from the National Judicial College. Yes, 16 books you need to own.

By Julie Oseid and Randall Tietjen

Three conventional dictionaries:

1.  Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition) [Now in its Eleventh Edition]
2.  The Oxford English Dictionary (5th edition)
3.  The American Heritage Dictionary (6th edition) [Could not find a link to the 6th, even on Amazon; this link is to the 5th]

One legal dictionary:

4.  Black’s Law Dictionary (10th edition)

Two English usage books:

5.  Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler
6.  Garner’s Modern English Usage

One legal usage book:

7.  Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage

Three style guides:

8.  The Chicago Manual of Style. Good advice on punctuation and style, plus handy information about copyright and fair use.
9.  The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style by Bryan Garner
10.  Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick

Beyond the reference books:

11.  Elements of Style by Strunk & White. This book has likely been on your bookshelf since college, but it is well worth revisiting with some regularity.
12.  On Writing Well by William Zinsser. This book will make you want to be a better writer.
13.  On Writing by Stephen King. Yes, that Stephen King.
14.  The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
15.  30 Days to Better English by Norman Lewis. Good for improving your vocabulary.
16.  Typography for Lawyers by Matthew Butterick. It explains how effective communication depends on document design, including how words look on a page.

My only pushback is three dictionaries. For most of us, one good one is all you need. And I think the OED is overkill; unless you’re serious about etymology and harbor a secret ambition to be an English scholar, or unless you just want to appear scholarly and impress academics, you’d do just fine with either of the more popular dictionaries.

Speaking of dictionaries, I read Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper, a lexicographer with Webster who describes how words are selected to be included or excluded in a dictionary, as well as many other arcane facts about them (I know, I am a nerd). As she points out, Webster’s philosophy is to include words and usages as they come into the mainstream of the language (e.g., “waiting on” has become predominant in everyday language as a synonym for “awaiting” as well as “serving,” and either is proper usage) rather than the philosophy of American Heritage, which is to defend proper usage against all incursions (e.g., “waiting on” means serving, not awaiting, and it is improper to use the term in the latter sense).

I have to sympathize with Judge Griffis on at least one salient point: he sees a lot more of lawyers’ writing than I do. What comparatively little I see is sometimes unclear, rife with grammatical and usage errors, and downright unenjoyable to read, so that I just skip to the citations and read the cases.

Communicating: Improving a Basic Skill

December 7, 2016 § 1 Comment

At its heart the legal profession is all about communicating, which consists of at least several elements:

  • First, one must understand that which must be communicated. This entails analysis of the situation to break it down into its legal elements, and then application of the law to those elements.
  • Second, the analysis has to be translated into understandable words.
  • Third, the understandable words have to be presented in an organized, understandable, persuasive manner.

You can probably improve on that, but it suits my purposes for now.

At the trial level, effective communication involves well-written pleadings and briefs or memoranda of law, and oral argument, as well as the way you examine witnesses. At the appellate level, brief-writing and oral argument depend heavily on how well the lawyer can communicate.

Some things that get in the way of effective communication are poor grammar and spelling, improper word choice and usage, and disorganized thinking. And, it should go without saying that your communication is for naught if your legal analysis is flawed.

Here are a few tools to help you craft your communications effectively:

  • The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. This little gem at fewer than 100 pages (at least in the worn edition I have), is crammed with useful insights into effective writing. Here you will find such usage solutions as how to create the possessive plural of names ending in s, proper use of semi-colons with clauses, whether to use a singular or plural verb forms with words such as “or” or with linking verbs, and the proper case of pronouns, all presented in clear language with easy-to-grasp examples. There are other sections on principles of composition, matters of form, misused words and expressions, and suggestions for improving your style of writing.
  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H.W. Fowler, Jeremy Butterfield, editor. When should one use italics? What is the difference between reciprocal and mutual, or apprehend and comprehend, or unless and until? Why the word “literally” conveys the opposite sense of what you intend? Do we still observe rules such as avoiding split infinitives and ending sentences with a preposition (hint: it’s usually okay to)? You will find answers to these and many, many other questions that routinely pop up as you write in this useful book that is arranged by subject alphabetically.
  • Any good thesaurus. When you say the same thing over and over using the same words, your words have no impact.
  • A good dictionary. Before you use that word, you might want to look it up (takes three seconds) to make sure it means what you think it does.
  • The Law Prose blog. A gold mine of information on proper and potent use of legal terminology. This is one you should bookmark.
  • Adams on Contract Drafting offers guidance on how to draft contracts in ways that avoid ambiguity and clearly state the intent of the parties. Even if all of your drafting practice consists of property settlement agreements, you can learn something here about how precision in the use of language can make a big difference between success and failure of your instruments.
  • Here’s a link to an article in the ABA Journal Online on How to Bring a More Conversational Tone to Your Writing, which is meritorious in its own right, but illustrates also that there are resources all over the internet that you can bring to bear in your quest to be a more productive communicator.

You may be surprised how, when you concentrate on making your language more concise, correct, and powerful, you will simultaneously discover weaknesses in your legal analysis and thought process that you can shore up and strengthen before you ever dispatch that communication to counsel opposite and the court. That’s the kind of strength that distinguishes a really good lawyer from a mediocre one.

PARING DOWN YOUR LEGAL PROSE

June 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

The importance of being Ernest

Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star newspaper in 1917.  The sparse, compact language of journalism proved to be ideally suited to his writing skills, and he adopted it as his style.  The minimalist prose that resulted became his trademark.

Here are excerpts from the paper’s style sheet:

  • Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.
  • Eliminate every superfluous word, as “Funeral services will be at 2 o’clock Tuesday,” not “The funeral services will be held at the hour of 2 o’clock on Tuesday.” “He said” is better than “He said in the course of conversation.”
  • Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as “splendid,” “gorgeous,” “grand,” “magnificent,” etc.
  • Be careful of the word “also.” It usually modifies the word it follows closest. “He, also, went” means “He, too, went.” “He went also” means he went in addition to taking some other action.
  • Be careful of the word “only.” “He only had $10″ means he alone was the possessor of such wealth; “He had only $10″ means the ten was all the cash he possessed.
  • A long quotation without introducing the speaker makes a poor lead especially and is bad at any time. Break into the quotation as soon as you can, thus: “‘I should prefer,’ the speaker said, ‘to let the reader know who I am as soon as possible.’”

“Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” Hemingway told a reporter in 1940. “I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.”

There’s something for lawyers to chew on here. Is your writing clear, concise and direct? Does it make your point in the first sentence, or in the first few words, or do you make the reader meander through prolix piles of prose? Does it read like nineteenth-century legal jargon, or does it state your client’s position in easily comprehensible language?

Take a few minutes to read your pleadings. Take a few minutes to review your motions and briefs. Does your writing do the job for your client, or does it get in the way?

When a judge reads your pleadings, motions or briefs, can he or she get right to the point, or does it take laborious digging to get there? And when the judge finally gets to the point, is it clear exactly what the point is?

Do you have a reliable style book you can pull out and check from time to time? I like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It’s timeless without being stuffy, and at a mere 85 pages, it’s packed with easy-to-find gems. The chapters include rules of usage, principles of composition, commonly misused expressions, matters of form, and an approach to style. There’s a lot here that is easily digestible and quite useful.

Give your writing a little thought. It’s one of your most potent tools to advance your client’s interest. And consider that muddled writing is symptomatic of muddled thought; if you can’t find a way to express it in writing, you may not be able to say it at all.

Thanks to Futility Closet for the Hemingway material.

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