Carolyn Elefant kicks off a discussion on “The Deterioration of Legal Writing,” beginning with a Financial Week story, concluding:
While I believe that both factors — the informality of e-mail and lack of quality teaching — have contributed to the decline of legal writing skills today, I think the main problem is the easy availability of low-cost, computerized legal research tools. These days, both students and lawyers can gorge on a glut of cheap reference sources, from today’s less expensive LexisNexis and Westlaw, to tools like Casemaker or Versuslaw, to Google and other Internet search engines. Consequently, legal research has devolved into an exercise in “piling on”, with lawyers adding cases and quotes merely to show strength through quantity of cases rather than quality. At the end of the day, with so many resources available, legal analysis is suffering, and as a result, so too is the quality of legal writing, which relies on the quality of the underlying analysis for its impact and effectiveness.
Evan Schaeffer chimes in with links to many of his great legal writing posts.
I had two “legal writing” classes in law school. Both were terrible; I encountered one teacher later who said she was glad to have moved back to consulting because it was “more funner” than teaching.
I’m not kidding.
First, I challenge the notion that today’s law students write any worse than their predecessors. It may be true, but I have seen no objective evidence of that. Complaints about writing ability are common for all employers, and complaints about the upcoming generation are as old as written history. Take this complaint:
On the matter of overwork they are particularly stern. They want to work hard, but not too hard; the good, equable life is paramount and they see no conflict between enjoying it and getting ahead. The usual top executive, they believe, works much too hard, and there are few subjects upon which they will discourse more emphatically than the folly of elders who have a single-minded devotion to work. Is it, they ask, really necessary any more? Or, for that matter, moral?
….Out of necessity, then, as well as natural desire, the wise young man is going to enjoy himself — plenty of time with the kids, some good hobbies, and later on he’ll certainly go for more reading and music and stuff like that. He will, in sum, be the apotheosis of the well-rounded man: obtrusive in no particular, excessive in no zeal.
That’s from 1956; Kevin Drum dug it up in response to an article just posted that was virtually identical.
Second, while great legal writing requires a career-long dedication to excellence, not-bad legal writing just requires keeping in mind a couple points:
- There may be rules for the formatting of legal arguments, but there are no rules for the content — do not force the content of your writing into an artificial form.
- Remember and use the twenty-odd years of writing education that preceded law school. Write sentences in which nouns perform specific actions upon direct objects. Use topic headings and thesis sentences and appropriate paragraph divisions. Present information in a logical form. Read what you wrote aloud; does it sound confusing? If so, then it’s confusing to read, too.
- The very worst examples of legal writing are the edits of cases in law school textbooks. Judges usually do not write opinions with frequent leaps in logic, sentence fragments, and the generous use of the ellipsis.
- The second worst examples of legal writing are Supreme Court opinions, which are the product of a delicate compromise amongst multiple Justices and which are deliberately limited in scope so as not to exceed the actual holding.
- The third worst examples of legal writing are law review articles, which must conform to multiple literary conventions that have nothing to do with ease-of-reading or persuasion.
- The best examples of legal writing that are easily accessible are trial court and intermediate appellate court opinions. These opinion state facts and then apply them to law, with little interference (at least apparent on the face of the opinion) from politics or compromise or convention.
In short, writing not-bad requires reading a few short books on writing, like Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and Joseph M. Williams’ Style, then reviewing some basic court opinions, and then applying the same principles to your own work.
Finally, never be afraid to disregard your writing instructor’s advice; odds are they’re looking to move on to something “more funner” anyway.