Why should lawyers invest in their writing skills?
Writing is the single most important skill for lawyers.
Update: Ryan McCarl’s book Elegant Legal Writing is now available for preorder.
“As a pianist practises the piano, so the lawyer should practise the use of words, both in writing and by word of mouth.”
— Lord Denning, The Discipline of Law
Legal writing is the single most important skill for lawyers. Here are some reasons you might want to invest in your legal writing skills:
Project an image of professionalism and expertise.
Build credibility with judges and clients.
Win cases and secure favorable results for your clients.
Communicate your ideas clearly.
Enjoy a central task of lawyering.
Improve the legal profession.
Consider the following examples of the difference good writing makes:
From an interrogatory:
State whether You and/or the customer have taken any steps to retrofit the PTL solution and/or to correct the alleged defects and, if so, state: 1. Any and all, each and every act done by You and/or the customer to retrofit the PTL solution and/or to correct the alleged defects . . . .
State whether you or the customer have done anything to retrofit the PTL solution or correct the alleged defects; if so, describe each act.
From a brief in support of a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment:
IT IS RESPECTFULLY SUBMITTED THAT PLAINTIFF HAS PROVED ITS CASE BY PROVING LACK OF PROPER SIDEWALK ACCESS FOR THE DISABLED AND THAT PLAINTIFF HAS PRESENTED REASONABLE ALTERNATIVES AND DEFENDANT HAVING NOT PRESENTED ANY PROOF TO THE CONTRARY, IT IS RESPECTFULLY SUBMITTED THAT SUMMARY JUDGMENT SHOULD BE GRANTED IN REGARD TO LIABILITY.
The city has failed to show that it provides accessible sidewalks.
Good legal writing does not have to be turgid and opaque; on the contrary, it should be lucid and easy to follow. The art of transforming convoluted passages into readable, concise revisions involves noticing and fixing obstacles to comprehension and readability.
Consider the following passage, for example:
While it is evident that the district court was well-supported by the record when it observed (albeit without specificity) that the ‘existence of barriers’ had been shown, the district court inexplicably made further findings which are unsupported by and contrary to the record.
A trained editor will notice the following flaws, among others, in this passage:
“It is evident that” is an unnecessary emphatic, a phrase designed to artificially lend emphasis to what follows. Such emphatics should usually be omitted.
The statement that the “‘existence of barriers’ had been shown” is an example of unnecessary passive voice. Who showed the “existence of barriers”?
The word “inexplicably” is another emphatic — this one in the form of an intensifying adverb (a.k.a. intensifier). Intensifiers are usually distractions that trigger skepticism rather than assent in legal readers.
This blog will teach you the techniques you need to know to make similar revisions on your own. It will do so through short, digestible lessons filled with examples drawn from real legal filings as well as student submissions. The blog’s content is based on a course I taught at UCLA School of Law in 2020 and on continuing legal education seminars I have taught to practicing lawyers.
Ryan McCarl is the author of Elegant Legal Writing (U. Cal. Press 2024), which is available for preorder through Amazon. McCarl is a founding partner of Rushing McCarl LLP and adjunct professor at Loyola Law School; previously, he researched AI and taught Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law. For more writing tips, subscribe for free to the Elegant Legal Writing blog and follow McCarl on LinkedIn.