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ESSENTIALS OF EFFECTIVE LEGAL WRITING

(A joint production of Professors Danielle Citron and David Super)

“The power of clear statement is the greatest power at the bar.”


Daniel Webster

1. Document Organization
● Organize your thoughts first. Consider jotting down an outline of your thinking
before starting to write.
● After you outline your thoughts, begin drafting right away. Try to avoid
fixating on any particular sentence and just dive into your project. Remember,
good writing comes from rewriting.
● When you begin writing, start with your conclusion, i.e., your prediction, point,
or argument. Be authoritative, even when the problem is difficult to solve.
Because your office memos answer your client’s questions, assert your predictions
with confidence. Let your analysis prove the strengths of your predictions while
addressing the any weaknesses (grey areas).
● Use roadmap paragraphs to reveal the structure of your piece.
● Include signposts to guide your reader, e.g., signal words or transition sentences
that tie a prior point to the point you intend to make. Examples: By contrast. Or
Three factors . . . the first factor; the second factor; the third factor.
● Think about including headings and sub-headings to organize the information
for your reader.
● While you edit, ask yourself if each paragraph makes a clear, distinct point.
Consider if each point fits into your structure of the piece.
● Think about the organization of your piece on four different levels: (1) your
entire document, (2) paragraph construction, (3) sentence structure, and (4) word
choice. Well-organized documents and cogent paragraphs are the main features
that distinguish great from pedestrian legal writers. Good sentence structure and
word choice can helpfully accent well-constructed pieces, but they can just as
easily destroy them by confusing, distracting, or annoying the reader. When
structuring your sentences and selecting your words, start with the famous
principle from the Hippocratic Oath: “first, do no harm.” Complex, over-long
sentences and affected word choice will not make you sound like Oliver Wendell
Holmes; they will make you sound like someone desperately trying to distract
from analytical weaknesses in her or his argument by doing a bad imitation of
Holmes.

2. Effective Paragraphs
● Limit each paragraph to a single point.
● Early in each paragraph, lay out your thesis (i.e., your Conclusion). Sometimes
you might begin with a transition sentence that connects your paragraph to the
point you made in the prior paragraph. After your transition phrase or sentence,
assert your thesis.

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● Avoid thesis sentences that introduce the idea without explaining its relevance.
For example: The Sixth Circuit has addressed the intent requirement in fraud
claims. Revision: In the Sixth Circuit, a plaintiff can demonstrate intent in a
fraud claim by . . .
● Avoid block quotes. And do your best to paraphrase quotes. You undoubtedly
can rephrase the court’s words in a more concise fashion. On those rare occasions
when you simply cannot say something that a court says more effectively, feel
free to quote a court.

3. Sentence Structure
● When rewriting, work on tightening up your sentences. Replace wordy phrases
with single word constructions. See tips sheet.
● Try to keep your sentences short and punchy. This is particularly important for
introductions and conclusions.
● Avoid “throat clearers” like “it should be noted that.”
-Other throat clearers include it appears that, it is clear that, it is
important to note that, the fact that, the issue of.
-Throat clearers make you sound pompous and distract the reader from
your point.
● Use specific subjects. To that end, avoid there are and it is.
● Focus on using strong verbs. Favor the active voice, unless the actor is
unknown or unimportant. For example, replace a ruling was issued by the court
with the court ruled. Many people use the passive voice instinctively, without
realizing it. When you finish draft, search for the word “by”: many of its usages
may turn out to be in close proximity to a passive construction.
-Uncover hidden verbs: replace reach an agreement with agree.
Other hidden verbs include reach a decision (decide), drew a conclusion
(concluded), place a limitation on (limit), make allegations (allege), be in
compliance with (comply), make a statement (state, assert), provided a
defense for (defended), put emphasis on (emphasize).
-Avoid hiding verbs in nouns (nominalization). Nominalizations add extra
words and drain the life out of sentences.
● Clarity is our goal.
-Keep modifiers close to the word modified.
-Structure your sentences so that the actor of the sentence immediately
precedes the action described. In so doing, you eliminate wordiness.
-Break sentences in two when your modifying phrase is long.
-Place only immediately before the word it modifies.
● Use commas correctly.
-Use a comma to separate two independent clauses joined by a
coordinating conjunction such as for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.
-Also include commas to set off non-restrictive (which) clauses. -Do not
use commas to set off restrictive (that) clauses.

4. Word Choice – Aim for Precision.

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● Avoid lazy adverbs and adjectives like clearly, very, plainly, obviously, simply,
completely, extremely. Instead, let your description of your idea convey its
strength by using precise words. Example: say Not supported by any evidence
instead of completely baseless.
● Try to avoid distracting and cowardly weasel words (This theory never prevails
except in rare circumstances); make your statement more precise instead (This
theory rarely prevails or Only Delaware and New Jersey recognize this theory).
● Do not write I think or It seems to me: everything you write is what you think
or how it seems to you.
● Make references clear: make sure that which, it, such and this refers to prior
ideas in such a way that your reader understands its meaning.
● While and since connote temporal relationships (While his accomplice
distracted the victim, the defendant picked his pocket or Since I started law
school, I have had less time to practice the cello), not logical ones. For logical
relationships, use although or because (Although you may be tempted, you should
not give legal advice until you are sworn in as an attorney or Because he did not
want another ticket, James drove well under the speed limit each would be
incorrect if you substituted while for although or since for because).
● Distinguish between the court and the decision you are discussing; only
mention the court when it is noteworthy for some reason outside the four corners
of the opinion (Rylands imposed strict liability not The Rylands court imposed
strict liability but The Brown II Court reaffirmed its earlier holding
notwithstanding its change in membership).

5. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite!


● Number each draft.
● Print out a draft, mark it up with a pen or pencil, input the changes, and call the
document a new draft. This way you save any thoughts you may have deleted and
may decide to use in a later draft.
● Editing is more effective on paper, not on the computer.