By Deborah Hopkins, August 15, 2018
A few days ago I saw a news headline from a well-known legal resource that said, “Judge declines to dismiss suit against ban on transgender people in military” and I had to stop and re-read it a few times as I tried to figure out what it was saying. Is this a double-negative? A triple-negative? And I’m still not sure I understand what the story is about; I didn’t click on the link because I couldn’t get past the headline. Maybe I’m impatient, but I have to think a lot of other people are as well.
If you have to read a sentence more than once in order to understand it, then you have a poorly written sentence. With legal writing it can be tempting to use complex words and long sentences, but the Plain Language Movement is alive and well, and people from appellants to union reps to judges appreciate legal documents that make sense and are easy to read – the first time.
Below are a few of the helpful tips we teach in FELTG’s legal writing classes.
This method gets beaten into our brains in law school, after which we promptly forget we’ve ever learned it. But it’s actually an incredible way to stay organized, to keep the reader moving along, and inevitably lead to the conclusion you’re making.
Facts: What happened?
Issue: What is this about?
Rule: What is the guiding law on this topic?
Analysis: How does the law, when applied to the facts, support my position?
Conclusion: Answers the question posed in the issue.
Don’t Bury the Lead
Legal writing is not creative writing and it can feel a little boring sometimes. But you don’t want people to have to wait until the end of the document to know what the document is about. The biggest reason is that most people won’t actually read the entire document. So do yourself (and your client) a favor and put the important stuff up front.
Don’t Characterize the Facts
It can be tempting to add a little flair to the factual narrative but be careful to use only facts and not opinion. If opinion is interjected, it can damage your credibility and your entire case might suffer as a result.
Example of characterization from the agency side: Supervisor Cook asked the grievant to stop wasting time and to return to his assigned duties. In response and without provocation, the grievant spun away, ignoring the manager’s lawful order, and essentially engaged in an illegal strike.
Example of characterization from the employee’s side: The “temporary” supervisor ordered Mr. Jones to get back to work immediately with no excuses accepted. Trying to avoid an unnecessary confrontation, Mr. Jones stepped away to give the “temporary” supervisor time to cool down.
Rewritten without characterization: The acting supervisor told the employee to return to work. The employee turned and walked away.
Choose Your Verbs Wisely
One little verb can change the whole meaning of a sentence, so be smart about your verb selection and don’t use a thesaurus carelessly.
Take a look at these examples:
- The witness affirmed that she saw the supervisor touch the complainant’s breast.
- The word affirmed implies trust.
- The witness stated that she saw the supervisor touch the complainant’s breast.
- The word stated, along with words such as said or testified, implies neutrality.
- The witness alleged that she saw the supervisor touch the complainant’s breast.
- The word alleged implies doubt.
There’s plenty more we’ll cover in future articles, but this should get you started. In the meantime, have fun being a little boring in your writing. 🙂 Hopkins@FELTG.com