CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER 1. 800. 973.1177
Write This Way
Putting words on paper: A lawyer’s guide
A diligent young lawyer -- you, for example anyone else. the final product should be.
-- can spend weeks researching a client is-
sue. The customary product of that effort is, A few other ways to simplify your work: 3 ORIGINALITY WINS The Internet has
of course, a memo or document. A concise Use monosyllabic words at least 60 percent made it tempting-and easy-to pull a docu-
and clear summation of your findings. The of the time, says C. Edward Good, a coun- ment from a brief bank and model yours
problem is, law school trained you to do the sel and writer in residence at the Reston, after it. Using a standard form as a starting
opposite -- professors wanted too much Virginia, offices of Finnegan, Henderson, point, to see how others have handled similar
information rather than just enough, and Law Farabow & Garrett. No need to whip out the situations, is a fine idea. Cutting and pasting
Review writing was intricate and verbose. To calculator, but scan a paragraph once in from their work is not. When crafting your
avoid such wordiness, we’ve assembled this a while. Good estimates that one-syllable final product, says Cohen, raid the recycling
concise and clear guide to writing documents words comprised about 70 percent of Oliver bin only as a reference. Not only are you
that are downright literary. Wendell Holmes’s opinions. treading dangerously close to plagiarism, you
Write in short, declarative sentences. Aim may be cribbing from inferior work. “Just be-
1 KEEP IT SIMPLE The objective of every for an average sentence length of 15 to 20 cause a document is in a brief bank doesn’t
writing assignment is to convince the reader words. The reader will move quickly and necessarily mean it’s a good document, or
that your position is the correct one. So your smoothly without getting bogged down in better than what you’d come up with,” Cohen
writing needs to be, well, convincing. Keep sentences that go on and on and on and on says. Also, don’t rely on documents written
on a single, defined path that’s always going and on. decades earlier by lawyers in your firm. Form
in the same direction. “The classic red flag is Don’t lard your prose with superfluous infor- and style often change, even within a prac-
when a memo or brief meanders, identifying mation. “People tend to think if one citation tice. Ask your assigning lawyer if the firm has
issues, cases, and other tourist attractions is good, 15 are better,” says Cohen. “They’re an up-to-date style guide.
along the way,” says Peter Sloan, a partner not.” Your argument gets lost in the padding.
in Kansas City’s Blackwell Sanders Peper 4 FOLLOW THE RULES The rules of
Martin. You’re less likely to be distracted 2 DON’T SHOW OFF Forget legalese. Be- grammar, that is. Do you know when to use
by detours if you stick to a plan (ideally one ing a lawyer doesn’t mean throwing around “that” instead of “which”? “Whom” instead
you’ve discussed with the assigning partner big, lawyerly words. “There is no place in a of “who”? (Are you sure?) Shabby grammar
at the outset). Make an outline, and as you sophisticated law practice for legal gobble- shows laziness and lack of interest-qualities
unearth the facts, file each one in the ap- dygook,” says Sloan. Plain English is the only that probably do not appear on your resume.
propriate section. The final step: String them kind of writing partners expect. “You can Aim for cleanliness in every sentence and
all together. always pick an associate’s very first brief in the document as a whole. “Identify the
out of the pack,” says Cohen. “They get into document’s structure, transition, and phras-
While most outlines end with an entry called this mode where they use words that people ing,” says Sloan. That means not mistaking
“Conclusion,” yours should be revealed up never use, such as whereas.” If it’s not a your computer’s spell-check and grammar
front. The Sixth Sense this isn’t. “It’s not a word you’d say, then don’t write it. (Unless, monitors-those squiggly red and green lines-
good idea to keep people guessing about the of course, you normally use an abundance for editing.
conclusion,” says Steven Cohen, a litigation of profanity and backwoods slang when
partner at New York’s Kronish Lieb Weiner discussing cases.) Speak your memo into a Helpful resources abound, from reference
& Hellman. Read through your draft. If it dictaphone first, then transcribe it. Chances books (see box above) to proofreaders at your
fails to convince you, it probably won’t sway are you’ll have a first draft that’s near what firm. Take advantage.
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CAREER COUNSELOR’S CORNER 1.800. 973. 1177
5 BE THE CLIENT Blanket rule: Assume
anything you hand in will go straight to the
client. This may not be true, but it happens.
Ask other people-your office mate, assistant,
even the partner on the deal-to be your read-
ers. They may spot errors you’ve missed, from
errant semicolons to faulty logic.
The painful part is that sometimes your most
important work won’t end up in the final draft.
But sometimes you need to put down every-
thing you know so you have a nice, thick trunk
of information from which you can whittle
your intricate argument. “The secret to good
writing is rewriting-then more rewriting,” says
Cohen. “No matter how much time you spent
putting something into a memo, you shouldn’t
be afraid to take it out.”
Once you’ve completed a draft, do another,
and another. “There’s no such thing as a
first draft, second draft, third draft, and final
draft,” says Cohen. “It’s a process that only
ends when you run out of time. It’s a quest for
perfection that is never achieved.” Maybe so,
but you can come damn close.
Four titles to keep on your shelf at all times ...
except when you’re using them:
Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style
Plain English for Lawyers by Richard C.
Essential English Grammar by Philip Gucker
Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law