Tips for better legal writing

October 14th, 2014 by Briana Cummings

Some of my favorite tips from legal writing authority Bryan Garner:

  • Don’t rely exclusively on computer research. Also use print indexes, digests, and treatises, including resources like Corpus Juris Secundum and American Jurisprudence, to round out your understanding of the subject matter. Google Books (especially the advanced-search function) can provide fresh resources to supplement what you find with Westlaw or Lexis.
  • Lead with a summary of your conclusions, not with a full statement of facts. Start your brief, opinion letter, or research memorandum with an up-front summary, which will typically include the principal questions or main issue, the answers to those questions, and the reasons for those answers. Never open with a full-blown statement of facts. Facts are useless to a reader who doesn’t yet understand what the issue is. Instead, integrate a few key facts into your issue statement.
  • Make your summary understandable to outsiders. Your biggest challenge is put your upfront summary in a way that your friends and relatives could understand. For example, don’t write your issue this way: “Whether Goliad can take a tax deduction on the rent-free space granted to Davidoff under I.R.C. § 170(f)(3)?” Not only is this too abstract and incomprehensible to any reader without insider knowledge, but it also doesn’t show any mastery of the problem. Better to set up the problem in separate sentences totaling no more than 75 words: “Goliad Enterprises, a for-profit corporation, has granted the Davidoff Foundation, a tax-exempt charity, the use of office space in Goliad’s building free of charge. Will the Internal Revenue Service allow Goliad to claim a charitable deduction for the value of the rent-free lease?” Then provide the brief answer: “No. Section 170(f)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code disallows charitable deductions for grants of partial interests in property such as leases.”
  • Master the approved citation form. Find out what the standards are for citing authority in your jurisdiction. Many states have their own guides (e.g., the California Style Manual, the New York Law Reports Style Manual,  the Texas Rules of Form). The Bluebook and the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation are widely used as defaults (and sometimes required by court rules). As Bryan Garner says, “Even if you’re not inclined to care much about these things, you’d better learn to obsess over them. Otherwise, you’ll look unschooled.”
  • Cut every unnecessary sentence; then go back through and cut every unnecessary word. For example, general consensus of opinion is doubly redundant: A consensus relates only to opinions, and a consensus is general by its very nature. Replace the phrase a number of with several or many, and, when possible, replace the phrase in order to with the word to.
  • Proofread one more time than you think necessary. If you can’t stand the thought of looking at your draft one more time, try reading it out loud. Says Garner, “You’ll still find some slips and rough patches.”

Source: Bryan A. Garner, “10 tips for better legal writing,” ABA Journal,, Oct. 1, 2014.

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