Make every sentence compact and powerful.

Two improvable examples from real legal briefs.

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Every sentence in a legal brief matters. While revising, you should work to make each sentence as compact and powerful as you can. That starts with eliminating all flab such as superfluous words and weak prepositional phrases.

Here are two examples from real legal briefs that illustrate some common legal-writing mistakes you should avoid.

Example 1

What are some of the problems with this paragraph from an answer?

The averments contained in this corresponding paragraph of Defendant, Chester Parking Authority’s New Matter Cross Claim are denied as conclusions of law to which the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure require no response. To the extent a response is deemed required, said allegations, including any and all allegations of fault, causation and liability directed towards Answering Defendant, are denied and deemed at issue pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 1029(e), with strict proof thereof demanded at the time of trial. To the contrary, Answering Defendant acted in a reasonable and prudent manner at all times relevant hereto, and is free from and any all liability in this matter.

Here are some of the flaws I see:

  • Legalese and superfluous words (“averments,” “deem,” “said allegations,” “any and all,” “pursuant to,” “strict proof thereof,” “reasonable and prudent,” “hereto,” “in this matter”)

  • Unnecessary prepositional phrases (“conclusions of law,”[1] “at the time of trial[2])

  • Incorrect comma use (“Defendant, Chester Parking Authority”[3]; “fault, causation and liability”[4])

The paragraph can be revised to: “The allegations in Paragraph 11 are legal conclusions to which no response is required. If a response is required, Answering Defendant denies the allegations.”

Example 2

Let’s look at another example. Consider the following paragraph from a wrongful termination complaint. Plaintiff’s counsel hopes to persuade the court that Plaintiff was wrongfully fired. Does the lawyer succeed?

At all times herein mentioned, the indefinite term of employment and permanent employment position of Plaintiff with said Defendants were to continue as long as Plaintiff performed his job and employment duties, responsibilities, obligations, terms and conditions in a satisfactory manner, and complied with all of the terms, conditions, responsibilities and requirements of his employment relationships, agreements and contracts with said Defendants, as hereinbefore alleged. At all times herein, any type of discharge or termination of Plaintiff from the employment of said Defendants, if any at all, would only be for good, proper, timely, legitimate, just and reasonable cause, proven and established, and in accordance with any and all of the stated policies, practices, procedures, guidelines, rules, statutes, laws and regulations affecting, controlling and governing each of the Defendants, as hereinbefore alleged.

Here are some objections to this paragraph:

  • Overlong sentences of equal length (65 and 67 words; writers should vary sentence length and aim for an average of about 20 words per sentence)

  • Legalese (e.g., “herein,” “said Defendants,” “terms and conditions,” “as hereinbefore alleged,” “if any at all”)

  • Needless words and overspecification (e.g., “good, proper, timely, legitimate, just and reasonable cause”)

  • Unnecessary prepositional phrases (“of Plaintiff,” “with said Defendants,” “in a satisfactory manner,” etc.)

A suggested revision — assuming we need this content at all: “Defendants could fire Plaintiff only for good cause.”

But do we really need this sentence, considering that both original sentences were “hereinbefore alleged”? The best way to edit an offending sentence is often to delete it.

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Ryan McCarl (LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog) teaches Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law and is a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl.