December 19, 2005
Writing For Clients--Just Say It-Part 4 of 4-Final
Five years ago, Julie McGuire, a CPA and tax lawyer with whom I co-founded my firm in 1992, and I wrote a short but easy-to-read book entitled Hull McGuire Practice Guide* (*or how to become a productive associate or paralegal). We wanted to write down our best "how to practice law" tools--without which, in our view, your hard-won Order of the Coif or Law Review pedigree from, say, Hastings, Michigan or Yale will mean zilch and zero by the time you're 35. We apparently were successful in making the Practice Guide entertaining; people genuinely enjoy reading it. We revise it once a year. Just a couple of days ago, while reviewing the book for its annual update, I noticed that the Guide's section on "Writing" says it all for us, especially the final item, Point 8:
"1. Use short "people" words whenever possible. Like words a trial lawyer might use in addressing a jury. Use short sentences. Be precise but informal. Don't try to sound too much "like a lawyer": "whereupon", "hereinafter," "aforementioned", etc. No one is impressed or enlightened by these terms. Just say it.
2. Economize on words. Make every word count. Don't repeat yourself.
3. Be accurate and truthful--yet friendly, personable and optimistic in your writing style. Clients know they have issues and problems. There's no need to further agitate and depress them.
4. There are no perfect or sole answers to 95% of legal issues. So offer a few alternatives, take a position and even break new ground. You need a reasonable and logical position which makes good business sense and provides an affirmative recommendation, plan of action or conclusion. Whatever you do, do not only tell the client what it cannot do under the law. Tell our client what it can do, too.
5. Proofread, proofread, proofread. (NOTE: We have a written policy on proofreading you must actually sign.) Pretend that, for every typo you miss or grammatical error you make, you have to buy Dan Hull as many Heinekens as he could drink in one evening in his late twenties on a St. Patrick's Day in the most expensive Capitol Hill watering hole he and his friends could find.
6. Citations of sound authority should be used--but used sparingly. No string cites. Use the The [Harvard] Blue Book--A Uniform System of Citation or The University of Chicago Manual of Legal Citation ("The Maroon Book"). The citator is your friend--not your enemy.
7. When you write, get to the point up front and summarize it right away. And then expand on it. Don't make the client, other lawyer or judge guess about what your conclusion will be 5 pages away.
8. Take a stand. Tell the client what you think the client should do. Our client reps are business people or lawyers. A good way to make them mad is to not tell them what you think they should do. If your advice is sound, and followed, but not successful, don't sweat it. Business clients take calculated risks every day--and you can, too. Pretend here you are not the side-stepping risk-averse lawyer they may have trained you to be, and take responsibility for some of the failure. But do make a decision, recommend something concrete--and take the hit if you are wrong."
Posted by JD Hull at December 19, 2005 11:34 AM
Those fancy expressions are part of the lawyer identity. Aren't you afraid that, by stopping to use them, you will have less credibility as a lawyer?
Posted by: Pierre Relation at June 25, 2009 01:12 AM
Posted by: Hull at June 25, 2009 05:50 AM
Fancy jargon may make you sound more like a lawyer, but not being able to make your client understand what you're talking about will only make them more nervous. Lawyers need to understand that they are dealing with clients who pay them for their expertise and time. Making them feel stupid will not make them more apt to come back to you when they need legal help again.
Posted by: Joe at June 26, 2009 10:55 AM
#5 - Not Beowulf's?
Posted by: Kathleen Casey at April 14, 2011 12:41 PM