Learning to translate your legal expertise into writing that is clear, concise, and compelling takes time and effort. The best legal writers may think like lawyers, but they don’t write like lawyers; they write like a warm, intelligent, logical, and practical person. They transform complex issues into simple concepts. They set it out in a way that meets the reader’s need.
How can you help promote clear writing and save yourself time? Give good feedback.
Giving feedback to fellow legal writers offers a solid ROI
Most lawyers review and give feedback on others’ writing, from court documents and contracts to opinion letters, research memos and blog posts. It’s not an easy thing to do. It takes time to give, and will not be possible with every document. But it holds the key to training good legal writers, and it pays off – less experienced lawyers become better writers, you spend less time and energy finalizing documents, and clients get documents they can easily read and understand. A beautiful thing.
The first step? Put down the red pen.
Let’s be honest. Most of us find it quite satisfying to find errors in someone else’s writing. And it can be tempting to start noting these errors, re-crafting the first paragraph, and drawing arrows to show how you would like things re-arranged. By the second paragraph, you might be debating whether to just go ahead and revise the thing yourself. But you must resist that temptation—it’s the first step on the road to supporting good legal writing. Instead, grab a pad and pen and get ready to make some notes.
5 things to look for when you review a document
1. The point. Is the main message—why it’s been written, what the reader should do, the answer—clearly stated right up front?
2. Just enough. Does the document cover what you wanted as concisely as possible? Are there chunks of text, such as lengthy context setting or extracts from statutes or judgments, that no one will ever read? Could they be moved to an appendix or just deleted?
3. Logical order. Is the content organized in a logical way for the reader?
4. Good style. Is the tone right for the reader, with strong, active verbs? Is the text unburdened by long sentences, long words, legal jargon, and text better expressed in a table or list?
5. Polish. Is it free from typos? Grammar, punctuation and spelling errors? Is it easy to look at, with descriptive headings, varied paragraph lengths, short and useful lists, and good use of white space?
More tips, this time on giving the feedback
Whether you deliver your feedback in person, on the document itself, or in note form, consider these tips for getting the best results.
1. Be honest, but gentle. Lawyers tend to be, well–oh, let’s just say it–critical perfectionists. It’s what makes us good at what we do. And it can make it hard to receive criticism. So be gentle. Remember, you’re not just working to improve the document, but also the lawyering skills of the person in front of you. Be prepared to focus on the bad, the ugly and the good. You know where I’m going next, right?
2. Start positive. Start by telling the writer what you noticed that worked well. Even when a document suffers from exasperating problems, starting positive: (i) shows respect for the time and effort the writer has put in; and (ii) yes, prepares them for more negative comments.
Your tone is perfect – it’s conversational without being too informal.
You’ve set out the issues well.
Your analysis on that liability issue is spot on.
These bullet points are clear and easy to skim.
Not one bit of legal jargon in this paragraph. Great!
3. Be specific about what needs to be better. Again, suggest changes rather than heavily editing or rewriting the document yourself.
Your paragraphs are really long. Breaking them up and adding headings might make it easier for the reader.
Put your reason for writing to the Commission right up top. Don’t make them hunt.
I marked a few typos on the first page. Be sure to make time for a thorough proofread of the whole document.
You’ve quoted a lot from the cases and included a lot of cites. I want you to go the next step to summarize and integrate it a bit more into your analysis..
Too much jargon. See the examples I’ve circled on p.2 and think about how you could replace them.
4. Give them back the monkey. Don’t cut off the learning until time demands it. Allow the writer to do another draft. And maybe even another. When it’s all done, send them a copy of the final document that got sent to the client, filed with the court, published in the newsletter – with your thanks.
5. Give yourself some feedback. Is there anything you can do to help lawyers deliver better writing to you? For example, when it’s your first time working together, you might talk to them about your approach to writing and show them some examples of your writing that you like. When someone is new to your practice area or the matter, spend a bit of time brainstorming together about what should be in the document and help them develop an outline. Or ask them to check in with an outline before they start writing as a way to keep the writing project on track.