Denver Bar Association
April 2004
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Poor Legal Writers a Thing of the Past

by Doug McQuiston

Well, there you have it. Over the last four months, we have talked about improving the quality of the legal writing in our offices. In the first article, I talked about teaching legal writing to your associates. The second dealt with ridding ourselves of our ingrained bad habits and stripping away the grey flannel suit to reveal clearer, more powerful writing. In the third article, we discussed ruthless editing and the art of turning a 20-page Leviathan into a two-page masterwork of clarity. The fourth installment taught us how to answer the Four Questions.

I have heard from some of you out there. Thankfully, none of it will likely leave permanent scarring, although I did take some shots from the courageous Legal Writing instruction team at the University of Denver College of Law. The professors there took issue with my contention that we didn’t (don’t?) learn how to write well in law school. After meeting with one of the professors and hearing what they’re trying to do, and particularly what they’re up against, I have a whole new respect for that brave team of specialists who try, against all odds, to turn out solid legal writers.

But where are we now, and where are we going? How many of you have instituted formal legal writing programs at your firms? Yeah, me neither. Don’t have time? Yeah, me neither. But we need to find the time, don’t we? One of the reasons we don’t have the time to do this is that it we waste too much time writing poorly!

It wouldn’t take much. First, go to the local bookstore and order a copy of Writing to Win, The Legal Writer, by Stephen D. Stark, (Mainstream Books, 1999). In fact, order one for each of your associates, and the partners, too, for that matter. I have read a lot of books on legal (and other) writing, but none so clear, so useful, and so well-done as this one. Although geared more to litigation writing than transactional, it will help with all of the different styles of writing we need to master.

Next, set aside an hour a month to teach, and think about, legal writing at your firm. It can be at the beginning (or end) of an associates’ or partners’ meeting, or maybe just Monday morning breakfast. The point is to create the time to think about how all of you write, and how you can make it better.

Next, pick one of your smartest paralegals (that’s right, paralegals) to pour through all of the "canned" documents you use. You know the ones—initial client letters, case analysis forms, deposition reports, medical record summaries, case memos, status updates, even fee agreements. Anything you can get to materialize on your screen by pressing the "auto-text" button is fair game. Have the paralegal pick a team of two or three others to work with her on editing these documents. The team members can be associates, paralegals, even secretaries. Start with the simple stuff—check for spelling, sentence structure, paragraph length, shortening, and use of active verbs. Then, have them tackle the substance of the document by answering these questions:

• Who is the audience?
• Why are you writing this?
• Why should they read this?
• What parts will the reader skip? (Then take them out!)
• "Do we have to say this? How can we say it better, more powerfully?
• How do we make it easier to understand and quicker to read?
• Is there any other format that would communicate our -ideas more clearly?
• How can we reduce the length of this document by half? Half again?

Once they have finished this (usually at least a six-week project), have them present their results to a group of the best writers among the lawyers at your firm. Then, those lawyers can work the results over one more time (usually about a three-week project) and put the end result to work in your word
processing programs right away. Making the changes, once the documents have been improved, is as easy as changing the templates in Word. The changes will go a long way toward "automating" good writing. The improvement in your firm’s written work product will be dramatic, easy to achieve and seamless to your lawyers, because all they’ll have to do is push a button to make it happen. Once they see the example of clear writing in these "canned" documents, maybe it will rub off on their own writing.

Finally, after you have done all of this, consider instilling pride of authorship in your lawyers by giving them incentives to write well. Use your imagination—maybe you’ll come up with a contest where associates can submit briefs, memos,
letters or other samples to scrutiny by your team of writing expert/lawyers for a monthly prize. It can be Rockies tickets, the keys to the firm condo for a weekend, or a cash bonus. It could take another form, too. How about a firm newsletter, where your associates could write feature articles for publication to your client base? This gets your associates thinking not only about good writing but client development, all in one effort. Another idea is to have your associates submit articles to The Docket. We are harmless, really, and it gives your lawyers a chance to give in to their muses.

Whatever it is, by making good legal (and other) writing a priority, by paying attention, you will go a long way toward making your firm’s written work stronger, more powerful and more successful.

Let us here at The Docket know about what you’re doing at your firms—maybe we’ll publish a follow-up article on some of the best ideas. Good luck, and keep writing!


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