Legal writing is typically about persuasion. You are usually trying to persuade your reader about your thesis, your ideas, your arguments, your client’s case, etc. So how do you do it? Legal writing is an art and a science. Different people approach it differently. However, in our view, there are some commonalities for what makes legal writing effective – what makes it persuasive.
With the start of a new academic year, and the introduction of legal writing to incoming law students, we again had the opportunity to put our minds to what makes legal writing “good”, and how to approach it. Set out below are 10 legal writing tips, which we hope will be useful for most kinds of legal writing.
Legal Writing Tips
- Plan. Before you start writing, think about the purpose of the exercise, your reader, and what you are trying to say. Test out arguments and ideas on friends and colleagues, if possible. Then develop a clear plan – a point form outline – for how you are going to make your argument. The headings in your outline will typically become the headings and sections in your paper. You should be able to have a pretty good idea of what you are trying to say, and how, by simply reading your point form outline. Time spent on an outline will usually be time well spent.
- Introduction. Include an introduction with a clear thesis statement. Your thesis statement should state what you intend to argue: “This paper is about X. In particular, I will argue …”. It is sometimes helpful also to say something about: why your argument is of interest; why it matters; why it addresses a gap; why it is relevant; the context in which it is situated; the debate you are addressing; and/or the literature you are engaging with, etc. (all of which addresses the “why should the reader care?” question). How much of this “situating” discussion to include will depend on the purpose, context and length of what you’re writing.
- Roadmap. Provide a roadmap. Explain how you’re going to make your argument. Use sentences like: “First, I will…”; “The second part provides…”; “Part 3 explores…”; etc. Make your reader’s job easy, not hard. Don’t make reading your work a difficult orienteering exercise; rather, paint a clear path to your conclusion.
- Organization. Organization matters. In line with your roadmap (which should follow your plan), organize the paper with purpose, including within each paragraph/section. Headings help to guide the reader. Each section and paragraph should typically help to make or advance your argument, to set up or refute a counter-argument, or to help conclude the paper.
- Point first writing. Legal writing often involves the use of point first writing. Point first writing means that the first sentence of every paragraph should clearly state the point of the paragraph. The body of the paragraph should discuss and elaborate what you said in your first sentence.
- Argumentation. Include arguments to develop your thesis. Make your case. Further, do not forget to address counter-arguments. It’s often more persuasive to take up the case against you, as opposed to ignoring it (your reader will typically be wondering about it). Fairly weigh the argument(s) on the other side, and where possible, explain why your argument is more persuasive, preferable, or at least equally plausible.
- Language. Spelling and grammar matter. Typos, run-on sentences, sloppy grammar, and too much “legalease” are all distracting. Plain, clear, inclusive and civil language is typically the most persuasive. People have different writing styles but no style properly includes incivility or sloppiness. When you’ve finished writing, put your work down for a few days if you can, then come back to it; you may have a new perspective and find something you previously overlooked. Proofread your work, and if appropriate, have someone else read it as well.
- Materials. Use materials, including primary and secondary sources – facts, cases, expert opinions, social science research, personal experiences (where relevant), etc. – to support, counter or shape your arguments. However, do not typically summarize the literature you rely on in depth, or write a book report. When summarizing is necessary, do so succinctly. In the context of a law school assignment, you can often assume your reader has read the sources you are referring to, unless they are obscure.
- Predictability. You do not need to surprise your reader. Predictability is good. By the time a reader gets to the last paragraph, they should be able to anticipate what you are going to say. Your reader should be with you from beginning to end.
- Instructions. Whatever the context – an essay, memo, factum, etc. – make sure you know what you are being asked to write, and then read and follow all instructions: word limits; citation formats; deadlines; source requirements and limitations; rules of academic honesty, etc.
We know there are other things that matter for some forms of legal writing, particularly depending on the context, including for example: methodology; literature reviews; ethics approval; case summaries; etc. We know we have not covered it all. We know, as we said at the outset, that different people approach it differently. We also know that legal writing is not easy. Reading the work of others is a good way to think about what you find persuasive about legal writing. “Good” legal writing takes practice. We hope these tips may be of use as you develop your legal writing skills.