September 2008 • Vol. 28 No. 8 | An E-Publication of the Los Angeles County Bar Association

A Few “Best Books” on Legal Writing

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.

During the last year, this column has offered tips on improving your legal writing. But a serious commitment to improving professional writing entails an ongoing commitment. One way to pursue this commitment is to read the best books in the legal writing field. Thankfully, in recent years, the field has yielded evermore useful books as the whole enterprise of improving legal writing has become a growing business. For a quick overview of available resources, click on the Legal Writing Institute Web site.

While a quick overview will not improve your writing, it may whet your appetite for enhancing your skills. So here are some of the best books for your immersion:

1.  Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (Thomson West 2008). This slim volume reflects the mutual dedication of its authors to no-nonsense, plain English. Written in the style that it teaches, the book briskly covers the essential teachings for effective written and oral advocacy. In addition to reflecting the wisdom of these renowned legal writers, the first page lists almost 50 judges and scholars who have influenced Garner and Scalia. Great read. Many gold nuggets.

2.  Richard C. Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers (5th Edition Carolina Academic Press 2005). If you only own one book on legal writing, this is the one. Keep it on your desk. This superb little book, which began as a 1978 article in the California Law Review, teaches the basic principles in eight short chapters. It adds a ninth for punctuation (just in case you’re a little foggy on semi-colons or dashes). At the end of each chapter, Wydick includes a set of sentence-revision exercises with a “Reader’s Exercise Key” showing one correct way to write the sentence. Not long ago, I met a lawyer who told me that he credits this book with improving his writing enough to get him through his second time taking the bar exam—pretty persuasive. 

3.  Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English: A Text with Exercises (University of Chicago Press 2001). If Wydick’s exercises improve your writing, then you may want to continue working with Garner’s version of this approach. In addition to a concise set of teaching points, Garner adds three levels of exercises: basic, intermediate, and advanced. This book also covers writing transactional documents in addition to briefs and motions.

4.  Tom Goldstein and Jethro K. Lieberman, The Lawyer’s Guide to Writing Well (2nd Edition University of California Press 2002). This fascinating book is addressed to practicing lawyers, especially partners who want to lift the quality of legal writing throughout their firms. The authors are a journalism professor at Columbia University and a law professor at New York Law School. Combining the efficiency of the journalist with the precision of the lawyer, their book probes three main topics: (1) why lawyers write poorly, (2) the process of writing, and (3) managing your prose. They also add a set of editing exercises to test your improvement.

5.  Steven D. Stark, Writing to Win: The Legal Writer (Main Street Books/Doubleday 1999). This book also features a lively tone and practical bent. Targeting persuasive writing and tips for litigators, the author taps into his experience as a litigator, Harvard Law School lecturer, and journalist. Good read, practical perspective.

6.  Bryan A. Garner, The Winning Brief (Oxford University Press 1996). By my lights, this is Garner’s best book for litigators. Providing 100 tips, each with pithy explanations and helpful examples, Garner covers the waterfront. Although many of the tips are technical (“Use that restrictively, which nonrestrictively”), several go to the heart of effective persuasive writing (“Frame the deep issues at the outset so that you meet the 90-second test” and “Counter the Rambo writer with the deflating opener”). Although lengthy at more than 400 pages, this book is a superb resource with a wealth of teaching points. Applying these points, lawyers can transform their writing from pedestrian to passionate. 

7.  Stephen V. Armstrong and Timothy P. Terrell, Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing (2nd Edition Practising Law Institute 2003). Armstrong and Terrell are old masters who have been directing professional development programs in major law firms for decades. This large and ambitious book aims to aid experienced lawyers, those who work under constant daily pressure to write at the highest level. The authors warn: “This book is for legal writers who do not need remedial help.” Instead, this book will appeal to sophisticated, seasoned practitioners who want intellectual challenge. Although the book is more than 400 pages, the first two chapters explain the principles, and those 30-some pages justify the cost of the book.

8.  Mary Barnard Ray and Jill J. Ramsfield, Legal Writing: Getting It Right and Getting It Written (3rd Edition West Publishing Company 2000). This book belongs on every lawyer’s desk. The authors have collected lawyers’ most frequently asked questions about legal writing, including prose style, grammar, and formats for memos and briefs. The book answers these questions directly with helpful samples. The best feature is the indexing. Since the questions are indexed in several ways, access to questions and answers is quick and easy. 

CLASSIC BOOKS

9.  William K. Zinsser, On Writing Well (25th Anniversary Edition Harper Collins 2001). One of the best books on nonfiction writing, Zinsser’s tips are a perfect fit for lawyers. He echoes Wydick and Garner with his emphasis on direct, plain English. As is true of the best books on writing, this one features a lively tone with a mix of common sense and good humor.

10.  Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Columb, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (University of Chicago Press 1990). Professor Williams, recently deceased, became a legend in his own time. This book began as a textbook titled Style, published in 1981. Over the next decade and in collaboration with Gregory Columb, Williams went beyond the standard fare of “high mindedness” in books of this kind. As he explains in the preface: “I tried to integrate [cognitive science] research into the ways that readers read with my experience with professional writing in a variety of fields, in order to create a system of principles that would simultaneously diagnose the quality of writing and, if necessary, suggest ways to improve it.” 

There they are—some of the best books. As Henry David Thoreau once said, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”




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