The Secret to Clear Legal Writing: Point First at Every Level
by Scott Wood
(County Bar Update, June/July 2007, Vol. 27, No. 6)

 

The Secret to Clear Legal Writing: Point First at Every Level

 

By Scott Wood, clinical professor, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. Wood offers writing workshops for litigators and one-on-one consultations. He can be reached at Scott.Wood@LLS.edu.

 

Let’s be practical. Our readers are an impatient group. Most are grumpy with their heavy burden of memos, briefs, letters, e-mails, and miscellaneous other writing. When we write to them, we enter a fierce competition for their time and attention. We need to get to the point early and often. We need to master the practical style.

 

A memo or brief written in the practical style opens like Russian nesting dolls. The sections, paragraphs, and sentences nest. Each unit has the same structure because each delivers the point first, then the development. “[T]he style permits skimming, because the cream is always in the same place.”1

 

The practical style has been succinctly described as that which “serve(s) the reader’s immediate need by delivering timely materials.”2 “[T]he reader has a problem to solve, a decision to make, a ruling to hand down...in short, a job to do.”3 The best teachers of the practical style, Joseph Williams and Gregory Columb,4 believe that readers have expectations for the distribution of information in the text. Thus, readers of the practical style expect an opening section with the issue and a following section with the discussion. Within the discussion, the reader again looks for the issue and discussion. Similarly, the reader expects every sentence to first state the issue (subject), then the action (verb) and further discussion.

 

Point first at the macro level. The introduction of every memo or brief should frame the issue directly. One method is to structure with a syllogism (major premise, minor premise, issue). Begin with the legal rule or principle, follow with the key facts, then state the issue. Here’s an example taken from an opposition to a motion to quash service of process:

When a defendant seeks to evade service of process, an attempt is legally effective if the server orally notifies the defendant of his purpose and leaves the papers where the defendant is likely to find them. Here, the server attempted to hand the papers to the defendant as he jumped into his car. The server put the papers under the defendant’s windshield wiper while shouting, “This is a summons and complaint, and you’re served.” The issue is whether the service was legally effective.

This first paragraph frames the issue directly, delivers the point first. If the discussion involves more than one issue, then use a series of these short, syllogistic paragraphs. The reader can parse them quickly, focus the issues, and read on with the questions clearly in mind.

 

Point first at the micro levels. The reader also expects the discussion to begin with the point first. In legal writing, headings and subheadings provide these signposts. In a persuasive brief, they should be assertive sentences that function like supertopic sentences forcefully announcing the argument.

 

Similarly, directly after the point heading, the paragraph should begin with a topic sentence, a version of the heading. This repetition effectively delivers the point first.

 

The reader also expects every succeeding paragraph to be explicitly linked to the preceding paragraph with transitional topic sentences. “Each topic sentence must somehow hook onto the paragraph above it; it must include some word or phrase to ease the reader’s path: a transition...”5 The paragraphs nest like the Russian dolls, each delivering the point first.

 

This point-first principle applies most importantly to sentence structure. The success of the practical style depends upon the active voice, sentences where the subject performs the action. As Joseph Williams teaches, “Readers are likely to feel that they are reading prose that is clear and direct when (1) the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters, and (2) the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions those characters are part of.”6

 

“When we use subjects to name characters and verbs to name their actions, we write sentences that are specific and concrete.”7 We also write the sentences that readers expect because they give the point first (the subject), then the action and elaboration. The reader delights to find sentences that replicate the point-first structure, to find more Russian nesting dolls.

 

“ ‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end; then stop.’ ”8

 

 

1 Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose 86 (Univ. of Princeton Press 1994).

 

2 Id. at 81.

 

3 Id.

 

4 Joseph M. Williams, Style Toward Clarity and Grace (Univ. of Chicago Press 1990).

 

5 Sheridan Baker, The Practical Stylist 42 (8th ed. 1998) (quoted in Bryan Garner, The Winning Brief 97 (Oxford Univ. Press 1996)).

 

6 Williams, supra note 4, at 21.

 

7 Id. at 24.

 

8 Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

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