Progressive Writing Tips for the Persuasive Lawyer
by Curtis J. Romanowski, Esq., Chairman
Collaborative Family Institute, LLC
As lawyers, most of us take great pride in our writing ability. By now, it’s become second-nature to us and familiar to the staff members we’ve trained. It’s not confusing, tedious or long-winded to us. We say what we mean, mean what we say, and get right to the point. Or, so we’d like to believe.
When we write, we are attempting to transfer our thoughts to or readers. What we do is difficult at times, largely because we are often dealing with highly complicated subjects. The task is elevated by yet another level of complexity when we take note that we are often writing for emotionally brittle clients, contentious adversaries and harried Judges. Apart from knowing why you are writing and who you are writing for, the following techniques are helpful for meeting the challenge.
Stop Writing Like a Lawyer
1. Lose the latin. Phrases like sub judice, arguendo, inter alia and vel non interfere with communication. The odds are that you were impressed the first time you read them coming from more experienced lawyers when you were only starting out. So, you folded them into your own writing style, believing that others would also be impressed. The only thing worse would be starting to talk that way.
2. Ditch the “law-bonics”. The “here” words like herein, hereto, heretofore and hereinafter sound bloated and lack precision. Duh would be a welcome break in some instances. Instead of saying, “which copy I have attached hereto and incorporate herein as Exhibit A,” simply say it is attached. Or, a better example: “A final Judgment of Divorce was entered on January 5, 2002 [Exhibit A].” No one will be confused.
If duh can pinch hit for the “here” words, duy can go in for the adorable yet useless phrase, “the above-captioned matter.” Think about it. If you are writing to a Judge about the case of Dumb v. Dumber, do you really think that the judge will think that you are writing about a suit other than the one in the caption? You can drop the entire phrase, and simply write. “I represent John Fox,” instead of writing “I represent John Fox in the above-captioned matter.“
3. Garden variety is good. Even when writing to other lawyers or judges, adhere to the everyday, sixth grade level usage of words. For example, don’t use “said” as an article.
Before: Defendant absconded with said joint marital funds.
After: Defendant took this money.
Don’t use “instant” instead of “this.” When a brief begins with “The instant matter arises out of…” most readers start to think about sucking on gas pipes.
4. Pronouns: Don’t take them personal. Writing without pronouns sounds forced. No one will get confused if you don’t wear out people’s names. The word same, however, is not a pronoun. Using it rates a dur.
Before: After affixing your signature to your Case Information Statement, please return same to the undersigned.
After: After signing your Case Information Statement, please return them to me.
5. Don’t couple numbers with words. Redundant use of numbers and words creates visual speed bumps. The Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage describes coupling words and numbers as a “noxious habit.” Simply use figures for 13 and up; write out numbers twelve and under.
Before: Chester was awarded twelve (12) patents after working at Energy Corporation for forty-seven (47) years.
After: Chester was awarded twelve patents after working at Energy Corporation for (47) years.
6. You money and/or your life. Don’t ever use “and/or” again. Period.
Strong Verbs Tell Your Story; Try Not to Strenuously Object
Strong verbs spice up bland legal cooking. They add drama to a random grouping of other words, producing an event, a happening or an exciting moment. Rather than using weak verbs, try searching for power-packed ones. Strong verbs persuade.
Another way to perk up a dull sentence is to change Abe@ verbs into action verbs:
Before: Jean was the coordinator of the event.
After: Jean coordinated the event.
Not only is the second example stronger, but it also cuts the sentence from seven words to four.
Always avoid passive voice and nominalizations. Active voice sentences use a subject-verb-object construction. The subject is the actor. Because it is in the beginning of the sentence, we focus on the actor and what the actor is doing to the receiver or object.
- Lori filed a motion.
- Sam’s attorney missed the statute of limitations
Passive voice flip-flops this construction so that the receiver of the action comes first, and the verb to be precedes a past participle.
- A motion was filed by Lori.
- The statute of limitations was missed by Sam’s attorney.
Active voice is bolder and more direct than passive. In addition, passive construction waters down the verb, adds unnecessary language, and decreases readability.
Passive voice does have its place. For example, you may want to focus on the receiver of the action or shroud the actor. Politicians often use passive voice to deflect attention from their shortcomings. “Mistakes were made.” This construction leaves out the actor altogether.
Finally, in addition to avoiding passive voice, you should also avoid nominalizations. Legal writers love to take robust verbs and convert them into anemic nouns:
The husband’s intention was to sue for custody. [Better: The husband intended to sue for custody].
An attempt at deceiving the wife was made by her husband. [Better: The husband attempted to deceive his wife].
Eliminating the nominalization leads to pithy, dynamic statements.
Impress the judge with your logic rather than your multi-syllabic vocabulary. Remember, your goal is to communicate. Strive to use simple words whenever possible. Try not let yourself (or your client) sound like a cop. Use “car” or “automobile” instead of “motorized vehicle.” Or better yet, if the wife was driving an SUV or a silver Nissan Sentra, say so. Don’t ever say “proceeded in a Northerly direction.” Consider the following rhetorical diet plan:
|adjacent to||next to|
Create Visual Impact
- avoid underlining and bolding; let your writing create emphasis;
- refrain from using all capital letters in headings, or for that matter, anything you want people to read;
- add charts and diagrams when appropriate; and
- limit the number and length of footnotes.
One last comment on fonts: Use Courier whenever possible. While Times and fonts from that family are widely used in books and newspapers for their readability, there is nothing more “in your face” than Courier. If you’re reading thousands of words late at night, nothing beats Courier.
Generally, a font with serifs is more readable than a font sans serif. And never use more than one serif font and one sans serif font in one writing. I recommend a bold or black sans serif font for headings and Courier for the body text.