Insight

The Write Stuff

A series of pointers for making your legal writing clear, concise and—crucially—persuasive.

Closed laptop with woman holding pencil
MJ

Michele M. Jochner

September 8, 2022 09:36 AM

Whether you start a legal writing project by staring at the blinking cursor on a blank screen or tapping your pen on an empty legal pad, you’ve surely experienced the universal challenge of getting the thought process, so clear in your mind, into a document that will win the day thanks to its logical organization, clarity and persuasiveness.

What’s true across the board is that good writing skills are the key to effective communication that leads to a successful outcome—and that bad writing can lose an otherwise good case. Let’s look at some important tools of the trade that will help you meet the challenge and craft a winning document.

Develop a strong and useful introduction. Studies show that most people form a first impression of others within a mere seven seconds. Some experiments have gone further to suggest that people can make accurate judgments of others within a tenth of a second. Perhaps more significantly, these quick first impressions are often long-lasting, and it may be extremely difficult—perhaps sometimes impossible—to overcome a less-than-stellar initial performance.

The importance of making a good first impression applies equally to all the legal writing you do. You have control over the impression you make, with an eye to establishing instant credibility and rapport with the court. Do not miss this key opportunity by ignoring the importance of a strong and useful introduction to your document. The opening paragraphs are your first chance to connect with your reader; use them wisely to develop a theme and set the stage for what’s to come. Although we all enjoy a good mystery novel, a court pleading should not be a whodunit—indeed, leaving your most important points until the end and keeping the court guessing as to the outcome is one of the easiest ways to make a poor first impression.

Instead, use the first few paragraphs to clearly roadmap your case, succinctly explaining what is at issue, what you want the court to do and why the law supports you. This is the place to pique the reader’s interest in learning more about the matter while also instilling confidence that you have mastered both the relevant facts and the controlling law to support the requested outcome. Starting out on the wrong foot may leave a negative impression that’s hard to shake.

Keep your arguments organized. Your goal is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand your arguments and to show that you have ample support for the outcome you seek. A key component of this plan is to organize your arguments logically.

Think back to your legal writing classes in law school, when you first heard about a writing structure called “CRAC”: conclusion, rule, application, conclusion. This format is the bedrock of persuasive writing, and you should follow it to ensure an orderly sequence of points: laying out the issue to be addressed and the conclusion you want the court to reach; a statement of the legal rules relevant to the issue; an analysis of the pertinent facts based on those rules; and a summary of the overall conclusion. This approach helps your reader easily understand the pertinent issues and how they should be resolved.

Studies show that most people form a first impression of others within a mere seven seconds."

When a document addresses several issues at greater length, developing an outline is particularly helpful to keep your thoughts moving forward in a structured way. Also, using headings and subheadings orients the reader throughout the argument, continuing the roadmapping that began in the introduction. All these pieces work together to guide your reader effortlessly from point A to point B and, ultimately, to the result you’re going for.

Be clear and concise. Often, when we think of legal documents, archaic words such as whereof, hereunto and hereinbefore come to mind. Banish such dusty verbiage forever from your writing and avoid any kind of legalese: Such stuffy and stilted writing is a surefire way to lose the reader’s attention from the get-go.

Short and concise sentences written in the active voice keep the presentation interesting and tell your client’s story in a way that makes the reader want to keep going. Long, convoluted sentences lose the reader, fail to convey your thoughts correctly and give the impression that you lack mastery over your case—all of which dent your credibility.

Also, ensure that transitions between paragraphs—as well as between arguments—are smooth. Choppiness in your draft hurts its persuasiveness and leaves the reader needlessly wondering how all the pieces fit together.

Remember, too, that a longer document does not translate into a better document; usually the opposite is true. Longer documents have a greater chance of losing the reader before you’ve made your key points. In such instances, less really is more.

Remember as well that the court has a finite amount of time to read, analyze and digest your material; make the most of that time by getting to the point and explaining the bottom line without making it guess what you want.

Edit, edit, edit! The oft-repeated maxim “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead” captures perfectly the challenge faced by legal writers: to keep their prose clear, concise and to the point while also staying within the timeframe allowed for the project.

Let’s face it: Editing takes time, and an effective writer budgets an editing period into the overall project timeline. Your first draft should never be your last draft; you must edit your material, perhaps a few times, before you reach the final product. The best editing occurs after you’ve had an opportunity to step away from the document and then return to it with a new perspective and a fresh set of eyes. Often, this reveals other, more effective ways to present your arguments; it might also lead you to a rewrite or two of certain sections, or even the entire document.

When editing your draft, do not become so emotionally attached to an argument or phrase that you fail to delete it if it doesn’t further your message. Your goal is to eliminate any weak points that will detract from the rest of your argument, while streamlining and tightening your strongest ones.

Give special attention as well to editing factual discussions. Eliminate any irrelevant facts (including specific dates) if they’re not absolutely necessary; judges may become distracted trying to figure out why you included them. On the flip side, be sure to include any unfavorable facts if they’re necessary. Trying to hide facts that your opponent will surely spotlight is a guaranteed way to lose credibility. Your best bet is to deal with them upfront and argue why they do not sink your case.

Finally, remember our discussion of the importance of first impressions? This applies equally to the visual appearance of your document. The advent of electronic filing means online legal documents are now the norm. With more judges reading documents on screens than on paper, studies show that including more white space is preferable and that headings surrounded by white space can be a favorable visual cue.

Along the same lines, finish your draft by carefully proofreading for careless mistakes. A document with typographical or grammatical errors decreases your credibility and, if such errors pop up in the first few paragraphs, well . . . there goes your good first impression.

In sum, provide a document that is well-organized, easy to read and highly persuasive. This enables the reader to breeze through it, understand your position and, hopefully, agree that yours is the winning side.

Michele M. Jochner is a partner at Schiller DuCanto & Fleck LLP in Chicago, one of the country’s premier matrimonial law firms, where she handles high-asset, complex appellate matters, as well as critical trial pleadings requiring sophisticated analysis, advocacy and drafting. A former law clerk to two Chief Justices of the Illinois Supreme Court, a sought-after speaker and a recognized thought-leader who has penned more than 200 articles, she has been honored as one of the top 50 most influential women in law by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and has been recognized in The Best Lawyers in America® since 2015 in Family Law.

Headline Image: ISTOCK/ LAURENCE DUTTON, ISTOCK/FPM, UNSPLASH/TIANYI MA

Related Articles

Punishment and Deterrents


by David A. Yeagley

Facing a jury instruction on punitive damages? Here’s a cheat sheet to help you secure the best possible outcome for the defendant you represent.

Seated man wearing glasses and looking down

Freedom to Compete


by Alyson M. St. Pierre and Ashley C. Pack

Recent movement at the federal level regarding management-labor relations mean changes to enforcement of noncompete agreements and other covenants could be imminent.

Woman in front of open blue door

Be Careful What You’re Waiving


by Danielle E. Tricolla and Gabriella E. Botticelli

It’s not true that any correspondence between attorney and client is de facto privileged. That protective wall can crumble quite easily, in fact. Here’s a primer.

Multicolor envelopes flying out of laptop screen

ESG and Stakeholder Capitalism as Tools for Energy Transition


by Javier Cremades

The recent rise of “stakeholder capitalism” shows the way forward to solving today’s energy crisis and working toward a carbon-free future. Are companies and governments up to the challenge?

Trees fill two silhouettes shaking hands

Navigating Rough Waters


by Roberto Ovalle and Sergio Díez

Chile has a solid foundation to welcome and protect foreign investment even in turbulent times. Its strong network of international treaties helps provide stability beyond the political contingency.

Boat weathers rough waters in bottle

Caveat Sanctions and Export Controls


by Carsten Bormann and Stephan Müller

Increasingly strict global sanctions and export-control regulations add a new layer of potential peril to M&A deals. A guide to expanding due diligence to ensure that malfeasance, whether intentional or accidental, doesn’t end up scuttling the agreement.

School of fish attack shark

Getting Reorganized


by Sameer M. Alifarag and Seth H. Lieberman

Taking a second look at first day relief: an examination of recent bankruptcy trends through the lens of two important debtor motions and their impact on Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

Desk lamp with yellow background

Accommodation Reigns


by J. Lott Warren and Kara E. Shea

A recent 6th Circuit Court decision could have big implications for employers who don’t follow reasonable-accommodation standards within disability and medical-leave law to the letter.

Blue lungs behind white clock

COVID-19 and a Cloud of Dust


by John J. Song and Theodore M. Becker

Think ERISA health plan litigation was convoluted before? The pandemic—and future pathogens such as the monkeypox virus currently causing consternation among health authorities worldwide—will further upend the legal landscape as new regulations and statutes take effect.

Masked man with airborne germs

The Great Debate: Do You Arbitrate Commercial Disputes?


by David K. Taylor

In a civil case, is it wiser for a business to try to persuade the counterparty to agree from the outset to arbitration—or potentially to place its very solvency in the unpredictable hands of a judge and jury?

Hand moving multicolor blocks

Before the Claim Hits


by George L. Lankford

General liability insurance is rarely as simple as it might seem—and if you wait to examine your policy specifics until your business has been sued, it’s too late.

Ship sinking surrounded by money

Budgeting the Unpredictable


by William J. Hubbard

Careful, comprehensive budgeting, regularly reviewed and adjusted, will enable you to predict the unpredictable, efficiently make the most of your resources and bring mass tort litigation to a successful conclusion.

Orange, blue, teal and peach life preserver

Press and Publicity: How Television and Social Media Impact Legal Careers


by Justin Smulison

In recent years, with social media giving minute by minute reporting, many lawyers are finding themselves thrust into a spotlight they never planned for. How are lawyers grappling with unexpected stardom, media coverage and merciless influencers?

Close up of camera at news station

ADA Website Compliance: A Better Experience for Law Firms and Clients


by Gregory Sirico

Information technology leader and civil rights lawyers weigh in on the vital need for website accessibility in the digital age, especially for law firms and companies like Best Lawyers.

Pixelated eye with rainbow effect

All Eyes to the Ones on the Rise


by Rebecca Blackwell

Our 2023 honorees recognized in Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch™ in America tell us more about how their path to law formed, what lead them to their practice areas and how they keep steadfast in their passion to serve others.

Person walking between glass walls towards window

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023


by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background

Trending Articles

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in America Honorees


by Best Lawyers

Only the top 5.3% of all practicing lawyers in the U.S. were selected by their peers for inclusion in the 29th edition of The Best Lawyers in America®.

Gold strings and dots connecting to form US map

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023


by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in Canada Honorees


by Best Lawyers

The Best Lawyers in Canada™ is entering its 17th edition for 2023. We highlight the elite lawyers awarded this year.

Red map of Canada with white lines and dots

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

Famous Songs Unprotected by Copyright Could Mean Royalties for Some


by Michael B. Fein

A guide to navigating copyright claims on famous songs.

Can I Sing "Happy Birthday" in Public?

Choosing a Title Company: What a Seller Should Expect


by Roy D. Oppenheim

When it comes to choosing a title company, how much power exactly does a seller have?

Choosing the Title Company As Seller

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom


by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers in Canada™


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 16th Edition of The Best Lawyers in Canada™ and 1st Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada.

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers in Canada™

Caffeine Overload and DUI Tests


by Daniel Taylor

While it might come as a surprise, the over-consumption of caffeine could trigger a false positive on a breathalyzer test.

Can Caffeine Cause You to Fail DUI Test?

The Real Camille: An Interview with Johnny Depp’s Lawyer Camille Vasquez


by Rebecca Blackwell

Camille Vasquez, a young lawyer at Brown Rudnick, sat down with Best Lawyers CEO Phillip Greer to talk about her distinguished career, recently being named partner and what comes next for her.

Camille Vasquez in office

All Eyes to the Ones on the Rise


by Rebecca Blackwell

Our 2023 honorees recognized in Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch™ in America tell us more about how their path to law formed, what lead them to their practice areas and how they keep steadfast in their passion to serve others.

Person walking between glass walls towards window

Announcing the 2022 "Best Law Firms" Rankings


by Best Lawyers

The 2022 “Best Law Firms” publication includes all “Law Firm of the Year” recipients, national and metro Tier 1 ranked firms and editorial from thought leaders in the legal industry.

The 2022 Best Law Firms Awards

Wage and Overtime Laws for Truck Drivers


by Greg Mansell

For truck drivers nationwide, underpayment and overtime violations are just the beginning of a long list of problems. Below we explore the wages you are entitled to but may not be receiving.

Truck Driver Wage and Overtime Laws in the US

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2023


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms from Australia.

The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2023

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers in South Africa™


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms.

Announcing 2022 Best Lawyers in South Africa

Press and Publicity: How Television and Social Media Impact Legal Careers


by Justin Smulison

In recent years, with social media giving minute by minute reporting, many lawyers are finding themselves thrust into a spotlight they never planned for. How are lawyers grappling with unexpected stardom, media coverage and merciless influencers?

Close up of camera at news station