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January 24, 2013

Just Say It: Legal Writing with Soul and Spine.

My Mom in Cincinnati wants me to write more good and nice things. She's a very positive and spiritual person--clearly put here on Earth to make up for some of the rest of us. So what about good and sane writing by lawyers? How do you do it? Here are some suggestions from our firm's Practice Guide for beginning associates, paralegals and assistants. None of this is gospel--lots of lawyers and non-lawyers have good ideas on sane lawyer writing--but pay particular attention to the final 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. No one sane and secure likes it. 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 much maligned 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 January 24, 2013 06:22 PM


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