The Essentials of Legal Writing & Reading Skills
by Jeffrey Hauck, JD, CPO, CII, LPI
Working as a paralegal means that you will be physically and virtually surrounded by books and documents. Realizing that there are literally millions of suggestions on how to improve your legal writing and reading skills on the Internet, I wanted to distinguish this article from the others. Please understand that knowing how to read and write is an implied low-level basic paralegal skill. Merely being literate, able to read and write in the general sense, will not provide the edge required to support your career or the organization that may employ you.
If, as it has been said, that “necessity is the mother of invention,” then it stands to reason that “repetition is the mother of skill.” Repetition is repeating the same practice drill in order to become better at something, but it is not enough. Mere practice alone is no guarantee though that you will improve. You must practice perfectly. The best way to hit this point is to illustrate the idiom that computer programmers use: “Garbage in, garbage out.” In other words, if you are practicing a poor technique then you are only improving and reinforcing your skills on performing a poorly executed skill or task.
In order to read and write at a more skillful level you must immerse yourself in legal works (briefs and texts) so as to practice perfect drills. Developing a reading and writing skill set that good paralegals must possess requires time, perfect practice, and subsequent repetition. Consider the following tips and suggestions to help you achieve this:
Time, Concentration and Focus:
In regard to time, famous author Stephen King admonishes us: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” Regarding concentration and focus, author Alan Wilson Watts tells us: “Normally, we do not so much look at things as overlook them.” The takeaway here is for you to set aside quiet undisturbed time to read and truly focus on the subject in front of you. Concentrate on defining and researching any term or legal principle that you don’t understand. Your learning process will be greatly enhanced. You must first know as much as possible about a subject or topic before you can comment and write on it. Prepare and gather your sources first and then write purposefully on the topic. As a tip, consider the famous English biographer and poet, Samuel Johnson who advised: “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading in order to write. A man will turn over half a library to make a book work.” That founding principle still applies today.
The great Thomas Jefferson has said: “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” Enough said. Follow this maxim in all of your writings.
Legalese and Being Concise:
The famous screenwriter, Bill Wheeler, offered this advice: “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” There has been a lot of controversy over the past half-century on the process of translating Old English legal constructs into our unedited American English language in order to make it easier for all to understand. By way of comparison, the legal world is also well known for its complexity and excessive verbiage. The current trend is to pare those legal constructs down into easy to understand legal language and concepts. See Tip Above.
You can achieve this by eliminating unnecessary words. Words that add no value to your legal writing or argument distract or disinterest the reader. Consider eliminating adverbs such as “frankly, “very,” “entirely,” “only,” “really,” and “actually” unless they are acting as necessary modifiers for adjectives. For example, do not write “the defendant ran away very fast from the pursuing police officer.” Consider instead, legal writing using a strong verb to change the narrative such as, “the defendant sprinted from the officer.” Also don’t use flowery or inflammatory words. The takeaway is to be concise.
Active Voice and Action Words:
To write in the active voice can convey a strong sense within the narrative. A good way to understand this concept is by using author Sydney J. Harris’ advice: “We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice – that is, until we have stopped saying ‘It got lost,’ and say, ‘I lost it.’” Other examples using the active voice and action words will allow for a concise dialogue. For example, a passive voice will state: “The staff are required by the company to watch a safety video every year.” An active voice will state: “The company requires staff to watch a safety video every year.” A passive voice will state: “The interesting science fiction novel was read by Jon in one long day.” An active voice will state: “Jon read the novel in one day.” It is more concise, to the point, and uses action words to convey the intended meaning.
The Importance of Outlining:
Author Sylvan Barnet advises: “Outlining, in short, is not merely a way of organizing ideas but is also a way of getting ideas.” An outline is an indispensable writing tool. When used, a thoroughly constructed outline allows the paper to essentially write itself. It frames the task, whether a legal brief or essay, and ensures that you are addressing all of the salient or important areas needed. This allows for an organized flow of information that ends with an intelligent conclusion.
Remember to use headings and subheadings which aid in organization and allow for all information from the topic sentence to the summary or conclusion to convey your message. Consider the basic elements of a crime: (1). Criminal Intent; (2). Criminal Act; (3). Concurrence; (4). Causation, and (5). Harm. After the title, each element would consist of its own paragraph with heading with sub-headings explaining the details of how each element was fulfilled culminating in the final conclusion at the end of the paper which also has a heading. Each element should be drafted without blending other arguments in it. To do so would disrupt the logical flow and be confusing.
Paragraph and Sentence Length:
Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is quoted as saying: “Less is more.” Remember that shorter sentences engage and hold a reader’s attention. Longer ones do the opposite. A short, direct sentence emphasizes a favorable fact or legal principle. As a general rule, craft sentences no more than twenty to twenty- five words. In addition, keep your paragraphs between 5-7 sentences maximum. Remember, long sentences distract and ones that are too short might lose the message. Quotes are fine but avoid block quotes unless necessary. Paralegals usually add them if they believe it might be particularly relevant to the argument but many judges want to see the source of the law, not the letter of the law, meaning that they may pass over information that you consider important.
Veronica Chambers once wrote: “Writing is architectural. Letters become words, and words become sentences, and sentences become paragraphs, and paragraphs become chapters and chapters become books.” In paralegal terms that means to ensure that your argument flow is effective, use transition words such as “also,” “additionally,” “moreover,” and “furthermore.” Doing so enhances the flow and organization of your argument and position. Discuss one point (or element of a legal argument) in a paragraph, and always begin a paragraph with a topic sentence. Do not include multiple legal arguments (or standards) in a single paragraph. Refer to “The Importance of Outlining.”
Editing & Editing Tools:
When editing, author Don Roff suggests: “I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.” This is self-explanatory and should be intuitively obvious. A good edit is necessary to catch mistakes or the need to fill in additional information. This is achieved by reading over the entire paper, not merely scanning it, to ensure that the information is compiled in a logical and orderly fashion with no mistakes. The use of computer programs such as AutoCrit, CorrectEnglish, editMinion, Grammarly, Hemingly App, PaperRater, ProWritingAid, etc. can be very useful but your own eyes must check for content, organization, and flow.
With regard to re-editing follow the advice of author C.K. Webb: “Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity…edit one more time!” This is true with your own works. A last final edit will always reveal at least one error or grammatical/syntax mistake. This is also important if you work strictly off a computer platform where it has been shown that writers identify fewer mistakes on screen than on paper. Always edit twice.
Read & Write More:
On continuing the process of legal writing and reading author Kilroy J. Oldster reflects: “A program of active reading and writing might be the hardest form of thinking, but it is also the most organized methodology of self-education.” Your skill set will never stop growing if you continue to actively read and write. As such, over time, you will become increasingly more marketable.