Writing that Works: 10 Years In

Editor’s note:  When this column first appeared in the March/April 2010 edition of North Carolina Lawyer, the magazine was a bimonthly tabloid and Writing that Works was a “new, occasional feature designed to give practicing attorneys a ‘refresher’ on how to write effectively for their legal audiences.” The initial column is republished here in appreciation for the author, Laura Graham, who has provided timeless insight to her fellow NCBA members over the past 10 years. 

“Legal writing is so simple, but it’s so hard.”

I heard this lament recently from a novice legal writer, and I understood exactly what he meant. Most lawyers – indeed, even most beginning law students – understand intuitively that certain qualities are fundamental to effective legal writing. Clarity, conciseness, accuracy, organization – these would likely top almost any lawyer’s list of the characteristics of “good” legal writing. And yet even veteran lawyers acknowledge that writing a memo or brief that reflects all of these qualities is no easy task.

So why is something so easy to explain so difficult to do? Perhaps the main reason is that many of the chief qualities of effective legal writing – precision, for example, or clarity – are not qualities that naturally appear in our writing. We must consciously work to achieve them.

Another reason is that attorneys are extremely busy folks. Writing an effective memo or brief is a craft, and practicing any craft well requires an investment of time that most lawyers struggle to make. A third reason is that the craft of effective legal writing requires many tools, and those tools can become dull or rusty over time.

From a legal writing perspective, I recall law school as a time when I was eagerly filling my toolbox and constantly cleaning and sharpening my tools. Looking back, I realize what a luxury it was to have the time to outline, draft, revise, edit, and polish each piece of writing, all the while getting valuable feedback. I remember how rewarding it was to know, at the end of those three years, that I had transitioned from a novice into a skilled craftsman.

After law school, I spent eighteen months as a law clerk at the North Carolina Court of Appeals. My boss, the Honorable (and wonderful) Ralph Walker, gave me great freedom as I applied my legal writing skills to drafting opinions for him, and the trust he placed in me gave rise to a confidence that was largely responsible for convincing me that I could one day teach other novice lawyers how to write well.

During my clerkship, I spent a lot of time reading briefs written by practicing attorneys, and I was struck by how widely they varied in quality and effectiveness. I knew that most of the briefs represented the attorneys’ best efforts given the many competing demands on their time, and I realized that many of them were probably tackling the task of writing good briefs with rusty, dull tools. I never dreamed that I would be in their shoes.

And then I entered practice. And all of a sudden, legal writing as I knew it was a thing of the past. Practicing domestic law in a relatively small North Carolina city just didn’t generate much demand for complex, well-crafted memos and briefs. My toolbox sat on a shelf, gathering dust. On those rare occasions when I did have the opportunity to write something more complex than basic pleadings and routine correspondence, I opened my toolbox only to find with dismay that in the space of just a few months, my tools had grown rusty and dull from disuse. I realized afresh, personally and painfully, what a challenge effective legal writing could be for busy attorneys.

It’s been eleven years since then, and teaching novice lawyers how to write well is now my “bread and butter.” But I haven’t forgotten what it felt like to open that toolbox and wonder if I still knew how to use my legal writing tools. This new column, Writing that Works, is designed to give you short “refreshers” on various aspects of effective legal writing – to help you sharpen and polish your legal writing tools, so to speak. I’ll address both broader topics related to the legal writing process itself and narrower topics related to the legal writing product.

I’ll tell you in advance that my approach to measuring the effectiveness of legal writing has grown more user-focused during the years that I’ve spent teaching it. I remind my legal writing students often that as I evaluate each document they produce, I place myself in the shoes of the person who will be using that particular document (the senior attorney, or the trial judge, or the appellate judge). So, in these columns, you’ll likely see many references to “the user.” After all, legal writing is effective only to the extent that it meets the needs and expectations of the person who is relying on it to make a decision.

From my perspective as I launch this column, you are the users whose needs and expectations I hope to meet. Thus, I welcome your comments and suggestions as I go forward. If there are particular aspects of legal writing you would like to read more about, or particular legal writing challenges you face that I might help you address, please tell me about them. I would also enjoy hearing about what has worked well for you in your legal writing efforts and, with your permission, passing your advice along to the readership.

While effective legal writing is a craft, and often a challenging one, it need not be a frustrating one. Fortunately, while the users of legal writing are diverse in many ways, they do share a set of common needs and expectations when it comes to the documents we submit to them. Keeping those needs and expectations in mind at each step of the writing process goes a long way toward helping us hone our craft.

I say “hone our craft” rather than “master our craft” because I believe that mastery of effective legal writing is a goal that is more aspirational than practical. As I type each word of this column, I am acutely and humbly aware that even those of us who might be labeled as “experts” in legal writing still struggle to practice our craft effectively. Nonetheless, I hope that as you read this column, you’ll be inspired to think about how you can take your legal writing to a new level of effectiveness, which is, I think, a very practical and achievable goal.

Laura Graham serves as Professor of Legal Writing and Director of Legal Analysis, Writing, and Research at Wake Forest University School of Law. She is a graduate of Wake Forest University and Wake Forest University School of Law, where she received the 1994 Outstanding Woman Law Graduate Award. She was also the first recipient of the Graham Award for Excellence in Teaching Legal Research and Writing, which is named in her honor. She welcomes email from readers at [email protected].

This article is part of the August 2020 issue of North Carolina Lawyer. Access a curated view of NC Lawyer or view the table of contents.