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By: Brigid McCarthy
University of Baltimore School of Law

Have you ever immediately discredited an entire article after spotting a grammatical error? Subconsciously or not, when we spot such errors we think, “if the author doesn’t care about this piece of writing, why should I?”[1] Moreover, we wonder if the author is credible at all. Writing is arguably the most critical skill for legal professionals to master. Whether you are a seasoned attorney drafting complex pleadings and motions, or a law student crafting writing samples for summer positions and clerkships, it is no surprise that legal minds are constantly searching for errors in your writing like needles in a haystack. However, such scrutiny does not necessarily  stop writers, whether novices or experts, from making the same mistakes. Even the most experienced attorneys are not immune from making an occasional formatting error, or using three sentences to explain what could have been conveyed in one. Our minds often are unable to recognize our own writing errors unless we are consciously aware of the errors we tend to make and have an approach to “error correction.”[2] The possibility of falling victim to tricks our mind may play on us during the editing process makes catching such errors rather daunting. After all, how can we correct mistakes we don’t know we made?

Every year, people all over the world create resolutions for themselves to start off the new year. We choose these with the intention of bettering ourselves. If your New Year’s resolutions include improving your writing skills, look no further. The best way to improve anything is to perfect the basics. Next time you find yourself questioning your draft, consider the contents of this non-exhaustive list of errors that may be hurting your writing:

  1. Review for formatting errors[3]– It may seem trivial, but the way you format your document is crucial. Afterall, the first thing your reader sees is the format of the document. If the margins are not correct, or the font isn’t exactly as specified in the instructions, the reader is less likely to want to read your work or credit its contents. Do not underestimate the power of a clean work product!
  1. Examine your word choice[4]– Lawyers and students alike all know how the pressure to sound “smart” sometimes causes us to use poor word choice. The secret to good writing is making it understandable. When using “fancy” words, you risk using them incorrectly, which gives the opposite effect. It is better to use words that are clear and comprehensible at any novice reader’s level. Think of your audience as “the gifted ninth grader,” as Professor Michael Meyerson who teaches at the University of Baltimore School of Law urges!
  1. Avoid wordiness[5]– In the wise words of the beloved character on NBC’s “The Office,” Kevin Malone, when responding to his co-workers in the fewest words possible, “why waste time say lot word when few word do trick?” Okay, maybe you should not be that concise, but no one wants to read something if the sentences and paragraphs are lengthy. As a general rule of thumb, stick to using sentences that are about two lines or less. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but longer sentences should be used sparingly. Paragraphs should end when there is a logical break in the writing. This will help with the flow of your paper.
  1. And watch out for legalese[6]– On that same note, certain expressions are often used in legal writing that add unnecessary words. Most phrases, such as “in order to,” “the majority of,” or “whether or not,” can be shortened or eliminated without affecting the flow of your writing. Consider using “to,” “most,” or “whether,” respectively. Everyone gets excited about a shortened reading assignment or finding a two-page case with the same facts as the client’s. Just think, your shortened writing might be the reason someone smiles today!
  1. Proof read, proof read, and proof read one more time[7]– After spending hours meticulously researching, writing, and then re-writing, the last thing we want to do is proofread, but its importance should not be overlooked. The easiest way of doing this is reading your work out loud or have someone else read it over for you. This is what will help you catch the small errors and make your work product worth reading.

Even the best writers will occasionally make these mistakes. Personal preferences and backgrounds will sway every author’s work. Great legal writing means something different to everyone. Making these small changes to your writing, however, can make a huge impact on the delivery of your message, and, hopefully, help you not drop the ball on your New Year’s resolutions. Happy writing!

 

[1] Josephine O’Brien, Consciousness-Raising, Error Correction and Proofreading, 15 J. Scholarship Teaching & Learning 85, 85-103 (2015).

[2] Id.

[3] Debra Cassens Weiss, Federal Judge Issues Footnote Warning, Threatens to Toss Pleadings Using Wrong Format (Sept. 1, 2016), https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/federal_judge_issues_footnote_warning_threatens_to_toss_pleadings_using_wro.

[4] Tenielle Fordyce-Ruff, Write the Right Words: Effective Legal Writing, Idaho State Bar (last updated: April 6, 2021) https://isb.idaho.gov/blog/write-the-right-words-effective-legal-writing/.

[5] Slater v. Gallman, 339 N.E.2d 863 (N.Y. 1975) (assessing costs against taxpayers because the court found their 284 page brief and thirty-five page reply brief an “unwarranted burden upon the court”).

[6]See In re Disciplinary Action Against Hawkins, 502 N.W.2d 770, 770 (Minn. 1993) (stating that an attorney’s lack of writing skills required a public reprimand and at least ten hours of a legal writing program).

[7] Duncan v. AT & T Commc’ns, Inc., 668 F. Supp. 232, 234 (S.D.N.Y. 1987)

(dismissing a complaint drafted by counsel that was so poorly written it was rendered “functionally illegible”).