Start each writing project with a template or model
Lawyers shouldn't start new writing projects with a blank page.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the writing process is getting started — putting the document’s first words on paper. Blank pages are intimidating, as they remind us of how much time and work it will take to fill them. Lawyers should rarely begin new projects by looking at a blank page, however.
Consider starting with templates and models written by attorneys whose writing you respect or by attorneys in your own firm. Use computer folders to collect and store writing samples that you might be able to use as starting points in future projects.
You can find examples of every kind of legal document by searching Lexis or Westlaw. To increase the chances that you’ll find a good example, add the name of an elite firm or litigator to the search query. For example, in Lexis, you could set the source-type field to “Briefs, Pleadings, and Motions,” then search for
WilmerHale “motion for summary judgment” to find summary judgment motions or opposition briefs written by the prestigious firm WilmerHale. Use computer folders to collect and store writing samples that you might be able to use as starting points in future projects.
Another option is to use “form book” treatises and practice checklists such as American Jurisprudence Pleading and Practice Forms Annotated. These are useful as starting points and to check for things you’ve forgotten to include.
When I draft a custom contract for a client, for example, I first search our firm’s internal files to see whether we have drafted that type of contract before. I then download several form contracts of that type from Lexis. I print the contracts out, choose one as a starting point for my own drafting (if needed), and then check my draft against each form to see whether I’ve forgotten to include any important provisions.
Never take language wholesale from a form contract or other source, however. Improve it by rewriting it in your own words and cutting out every nonessential provision, paragraph, phrase, and word as you go. Here’s an example (from a form buy-sell agreement):
Original form provision
If any vote, consent, or other action on the part of the Corporation’s Shareholders is necessary to remove a legal impediment that would otherwise prevent the performance by the Corporation of any one or more of its obligations under this Agreement, each of the Shareholders agrees to supply that vote, consent, or other action.
If any Shareholder action is needed to remove a legal impediment that would otherwise prevent the Corporation from performing its obligations under this Agreement, each Shareholder shall perform that action.
Ryan McCarl is a founding partner of Rushing McCarl LLP, author of Elegant Legal Writing (U. Cal. Press 2024), and adjunct professor at Loyola Law School. For more writing tips, subscribe to the Elegant Legal Writing newsletter and follow Ryan on LinkedIn. McCarl’s book is now available on Amazon.
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