How to Take Your Reader Along for the Logic
by Scott Wood
(County Bar Update, October 2007, Vol. 27, No. 9)

 

How to Take Your Reader Along for the Logic

 

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.

 

Justice Holmes famously asserted that “[t]he life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” 1 But effective legal writers know that unless the reader experiences compelling logic, the argument is dead. Creating that experience depends heavily on tightly linked sentences and paragraphs. Transitional techniques are key to whether the reader follows your logic home. Here are some tips for transitions.

 

Signposts and bridges. Headings and subheadings are crucial for a document of any length. In a brief, these headings are “super topic sentences” that signpost the logic. The headings also appear in the Table of Contents where they immediately lead the reader through the entire argument. In an interview a few years ago, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg disclosed that when reading briefs, she usually started with the Table of Contents, then started reading the brief somewhere in the middle where she found the key point. For Justice Ginsburg, the headings took her briskly through the logic.

 

In addition to signposting with headings, expert writers bridge between paragraphs, coupling them like railroad cars. They begin the paragraph with a sentence that repeats a key word from the last sentence in the preceding paragraph. For example, in The Lawyer’s Calling, Joseph Allegretti uses this repetition to bridge between paragraphs about those who enter law with the intent to bring justice to a broken world:

Law for them is a vehicle of service to God and neighbor, not simply a gate-way to financial and social success.

Often this wish to serve is coupled with an intuitive sense that one has the right kind of talents, attributes, and life experiences to become a lawyer. (emphasis added)2

Bridging words—logical links—take the reader forward smoothly, transitioning the reader across to the next logical idea, whether that idea expands, contrasts, or otherwise connects to the preceding paragraph.

 

Linking sentences: connectors, echoes, and daisy chains. Effective legal writing employs explicit connectors within paragraphs. To forge sentence-to-sentence transitions, at least three techniques should be in your tool bag: 1) transitional words, 2) echoing, and 3) daisy chains.

 

Transitional words explicitly reveal the logic. Compare these passages:

Example 1
Express oral contracts between unmarried, cohabiting couples are enforceable. Implied contracts in these situations are unenforceable. Vague terms render a contract unenforceable. Jessica Stone and Michael Asch expressly agreed that Mr. Asch would repay his share of living expenses once he began practicing law in exchange for Ms. Stone’s support for three years. They entered into an enforceable contract. Ms. Stone has a valid claim.

Example 2
Although express oral contracts between unmarried, cohabiting couples are enforceable, implied contracts in those situations are not. Vague terms also render a contract unenforceable. Because Jessica Stone and Michael Asch expressly agreed that Mr. Asch would repay his share of living expenses once he began practicing law in exchange for Ms. Stone’s support for three years, their agreement is an enforceable contract. Therefore, Ms. Stone has a valid claim.3

Since connectors are essential for logical flow, effective legal writers use them with precision. But note that these words cannot be automatically plugged in; the difference may be crucial between “therefore” and “as such” or “further” or “similarly.” Careful choice of connectors signals the reader to careful logic.

 

A second logical link between sentences is echoing. Just as the writer can bridge paragraphs by echoing a key word between the paragraphs, echoing key words within the paragraphs glues sentences together. How many key words are echoing in the following passage?

[O]riginal intent as used here means “plain meaning historically recovered.” This approach to constitutional interpretation posits that the plain meaning of a constitutional provision can be understood only by determining what the plain meaning of the provision was when it was inserted into the Constitution. While this approach does not deny that the provisions of the Bill of Rights represent substantive principles, it seeks to discover what the principles underlying the provisions meant at the time they became part of the Constitution before applying those principles and the provisions themselves to modern circumstances.4

Echoing “plain meaning” (3 times), “principles” (3 times), “provision[s]” (5 times) subtly but forcefully links the sentences and creates logical flow.

 

Finally, logical links can be forged with the daisy-chain technique, sometimes called the old-new technique. Since most English sentences begin with old information and end with new information, a key word at the end of the last sentence repeated in the beginning of the next sentence forges an explicit link. This example, which employs a daisy chain, comes from California’s Supreme Court:

Golden Gateway Center (Golden Gateway), a limited partnership, owns a retail and residential apartment complex (Complex) in downtown San Francisco. The Complex consists of four high-rise buildings and a group of townhouses and contains 1,254 residential units. Although the Complex contains a number of retail establishments at the ground level, retail establishments are separate from the residential units and do not have access to the residential portions of the Complex.

In the residential portion of the Complex.... (emphasis added)5

This third technique for logical linking creates cohesion and makes parsing easy. Transitions within paragraphs produce prose with forceful forward motion.

 

In legal writing, as in life, there are two important questions: Where are you going? Who are you taking with you? Using smart transitions, the effective legal writer answers: Toward a compelling conclusion—with the reader along for the logic.

 

1 OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES JR., THE COMMON LAW (1881).

 

2 JOSEPH G. ALLEGRETTI, THE LAWYER'S CALLING  31 (1996).

 

3 Examples taken from JANE N. RICHMOND, LEGAL WRITING: FORM & FUNCTION (2002).

 

4 Michael M. Maddigan, The Establishment Clause, Civil Religion, and the Public Church, 81 CAL. L. REV. 293 (1993).

 

5 Golden Gateway Center v. Golden Gateway Tenants Ass’n., 26 Cal.4th 1013 (2001).

# # #