The Lawyer's Guide to Writing Well

The Lawyer's Guide to Writing Well

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by Tom Goldstein, Jethro K. Lieberman

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This eminently practical volume demystifies legal writing, outlines the causes and consequences of bad writing, and prescribes straightforward, easy-to-apply remedies that will make your writing readable. Complete with usage notes that address lawyers' most common errors, this well-organized book is both an invaluable tool for practicing lawyers and a sensible


This eminently practical volume demystifies legal writing, outlines the causes and consequences of bad writing, and prescribes straightforward, easy-to-apply remedies that will make your writing readable. Complete with usage notes that address lawyers' most common errors, this well-organized book is both an invaluable tool for practicing lawyers and a sensible grounding for law students. This much-revised second edition contains a set of editing exercises (and a suggested revision key with explanations) to test your skill. This book is a definitive guide to becoming a better writer—and a better lawyer.

Editorial Reviews

Jacques Barzun
This advice is sensible and lucidly given, and what is more, the reason for it is explained, so that even a moderately eager reader need not simply memorize but can remember the principle and apply it where needed.
William Safire
Should be in the office of every lawyer.
New York Times Magazine
Washington Post Book World
Lawyers . . . need writers, or at least a guide like The Lawyer's Guide to Writing Well, to help them put together a sentence that the rest of the world can understand.
Scott P. Stolley
This may be the most underappreciated legal-writing text in the country. This gem of a book is snappy, informative, and interlaced with some of the most memorable quotes to be found anywhere.
The Defense
Harvard Law Review
The book's authors provide straight-to-the-heart advice for lawyers who want to face the music and turn over a new leaf in their writing . . . . A book deemed worth having!

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University of California Press
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The Lawyer's Guide To Writing Well

By Tom Goldstein, Jethro K. Lieberman


Copyright © 2016 Tom Goldstein and Jethro K. Lieberman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96335-1



Most lawyers write poorly.

That's not just our lament. Leading lawyers across the country agree.

They think modern legal writing is flabby, prolix, obscure, opaque, ungrammatical, dull, boring, redundant, disorganized, gray, dense, unimaginative, impersonal, foggy, infirm, indistinct, stilted, arcane, confused, heavy-handed, jargon-and cliché-ridden, ponderous, weaseling, overblown, pseudointellectual, hyperbolic, misleading, incivil, labored, bloodless, vacuous, evasive, pretentious, convoluted, rambling, incoherent, choked, archaic, orotund, and fuzzy.

Many critics amplified: Lawyers don't know basic grammar and syntax.

They can't say anything simply. They have no judgment and don't know what to include or what to leave out. They do not know how to tell a story — where to begin, when to end, or how to organize it. They get so carried away with their advocacy that they distort and even deceive.

The difficult task, after one learns how to think like a lawyer, is relearning how to write like a human being.


So what? Does poor writing matter? It's commonplace to say that it does. But what are its consequences? That's a harder question to answer. Justice Alvin F. Klein of the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan once embarrassed the opposing lawyers in a divorce case by saying in open court that he could not understand the papers filed by either of them. He ordered them to rewrite their motions and objections.

The judge's impatience represented more than the passing mortification of two practitioners or the wasting of several hours in drafting indecipherable papers. Judges rarely comment on the style or intelligibility of documents they read, though not for want of opportunity. In recent years, judges have rebuked poor writers enough that a word — benchslap — has come to characterize the practice, including even by the U.S. Supreme Court. But most benchslaps are confined to violations of style guides, punctuation errors, and other minor matters. Sometimes judges run the danger of making the same mistakes they lambaste. For example, in admonishing the lawyers, Justice Klein rambled a bit himself: "Upon a careful reading of all the voluminous papers submitted herein, the court is frank to state that it cannot ascertain the basis for the relief sought by the plaintiff on the motion and by the defendant on the cross-motion." But Justice Klein diagnosed a soreness that afflicts the practice of law throughout the country. Perhaps it is not a fatal disease but a wasting one: a canker if not a cancer.

Many lawyers bristle at the suggestion that they should improve their writing or spend time editing their draft s. In 2013, Bryan A. Garner, a prominent legal writing specialist, wrote a thoughtful American Bar Association Journal article called "Why Lawyers Can't Write." It elicited nearly two hundred comments, some perceptive and some less so. One common theme is seen in remarks from practicing lawyers who took issue with Garner's point that lawyers need to clean up their prose, arguing that the cost is unjustifiable. "Excellent writing requires extensive revisions. ... My clients don't want to pay for extensive revisions."

This belief is short-sighted and mistaken. First, resistance to improving their writing skill assumes that lawyers cannot actually learn to do so and thereafter write consistently at a more proficient level. Anyone can learn, and when we learn to write better, we no longer take the time or need to bill the client for fixing what was once done poorly. To excuse their failure to write well, or at least write better, by claiming that their clients won't pay for the better product, lawyers undersell what they are capable of producing. They are admitting that they are just not that good and hoping that the client will not discover another lawyer who can deliver the better work at the same cost, because that other lawyer has superior skills. If we did not think it possible for any lawyer to improve his or her writing, we would not have written this book.

The belief that muddled writing does not matter is mistaken, second, because the real costs of poor legal writing are often overlooked:

• It wastes the valuable time of judges, clients, and other lawyers, who must constantly reread documents to figure out what is meant.

• It costs law firms a lot of money. They must absorb the time of senior lawyers who are forced to rewrite the work of junior ones.

• It costs society. We all pay for the lost time and the extra work.

• It loses cases. Briefs, memoranda, and letters that do not adequately convey a writer's point give adversaries who are better writers the opportunity to portray their own positions more persuasively and sympathetically.

• It can lead to disrespect for or indifference to law. The public can't understand what lawyers are saying because the law itself is almost always obscure and lawyers' attempts to explain it are rarely clearer.

• It erodes self-respect. Hurried, careless writing weakens the imagination, saps intelligence, and ultimately diminishes self-esteem and professionalism.

• It impoverishes our culture. Writing well in a calling that prides itself on professionalism in pursuit of justice ought to be an end in itself.

Despite these consequences, many lawyers fail to connect good writing to good lawyering, probably because it is rarely possible to quantify the costs of inadequate writing. We doubt that lawyers would offer to reveal, or that accountants would leap at the opportunity to prove, the dollar value that a particular document cost the firm or the client or society because it was poorly written. And who can measure the injustice that obscurity fosters? So lawyers dismiss the consequences of their inability to express themselves well.

"Writing is a waste of time," said a young associate at a midsized New York firm, expressing an attitude we have frequently encountered. "We sell time, not paper." He could not be more mistaken. Good lawyers may rightly measure the value of the paper they sell by the time it takes to put words onto it, but if a document is unreadable, clients are not impressed — or should not be — that a lawyer has spent endless hours on their behalf. Good lawyers must devote their time to producing effective prose, but that is time well spent.

The more important a lawyer, judge, or case, the more important clear writing becomes.

One can be a good lawyer or judge and a bad writer, but not a great one without being a good writer.


Good lawyers are genuinely interested in words, in their nuances, in the subtle distinctions among them, in the growth of the language. Good lawyers browse through usage books now and again, not out of pedantry but out of fascination with language and the power of writing. Good lawyers revere English — and edit their work one more time to ensure that they have expressed their thoughts with the clarity and felicity that they owe to their clients, to the public, and to themselves.

Those for whom writing is unimportant are doomed to be second-rate lawyers. The connection between good writing and good professional work is not peculiar to lawyers. But because lawyers' work, more than that of most other professionals, consists of writing, a lawyer's disinclination to write well is the more disheartening — and potentially the more disastrous. Bad lawyers scorn the artisans unremunerated for their pains.

These lawyers, at best, produce serviceable prose — they know some rules of usage — and settle for the pedestrian. Bad lawyers, neglecting their craft, risk their livelihood — or certainly their clients'.

Lawyers who ignore the art of writing, who leave their prose rough, murky, and unedited, are not simply foolish; they are guilty of malpractice. Unhappily, this form of malpractice is widespread.

George D. Gopen, a lawyer and one-time director of the writing programs at Duke University, off ered an elaborate metaphor — the "toll booth syndrome" — to describe how lawyers write. Late on an arctic night, as you drive home from an exhausting day's work, you toss your last quarter at the toll basket — and miss. You can back up and pay the toll collector in another lane, or you can go through the red light just ahead of you. Your choice depends on what you think the toll is for. If it is to help finance road repairs, then you should back up and pay. But if you suppose the purpose is simply to divest drivers of loose change, you will go through the light. The money is not in the road authority's hands, but it is not in yours, either.

So, said Gopen, lawyers write without thinking about the purpose of doing so:

You cast all of your knowledge on the subject out of your mind onto the paper, not caring if the audience will actually receive your 40¢ worth of wisdom, but caring only that you unburden yourself of it. It's all out there — on the paper, in the gravel — and that is what matters.

Of course, that is notwhat matters. ... [Lawyers] get all the relevant information down on the paper; they refer to all the possible issues and suggest a number of different approaches and counterapproaches; and all the while they have no perception of how a reader not already knee-deep in the case will be able to wade through it all.

The feeling that good writing does not count is puzzling in a profession that demands its practitioners be well educated. Every state requires prospective practitioners to spend three years at law school, where students learn the substance of law. But the schools largely neglect the skills of practice. Most law schools have added "clinical" courses, especially in the years following the 2008 job market crash. These courses show how to build a client's case and how to guard against an adversary's, but they are costly and sometimes enroll relatively few students. In theory, law schools offer somewhat more in writing instruction: at most law schools, all first-year students take a required "writing" course. But these courses deliver little in the way of a sustained critique of writing. The accrediting rules of the American Bar Association require that law students complete two "rigorous writing experience[s]," a term the accrediting arm has never defined.

When pressed, law schools off er excuses for not providing adequate instruction in writing: Our professors don't want to teach writing. Teaching writing effectively is costly. Or time is limited, and students come for law, not for a refresher course in what they should have mastered years before. Teaching writing is the responsibility of colleges (or high schools or elementary schools). Students will develop their writing skills on the job.

These excuses are inadequate. The Navy scarcely tolerates a sailor's inability to swim because he should have learned how elsewhere. Nor does it assume that a sailor will discover how to float when his ship is sunk. Worse, these excuses keep students from learning that most lawyers do not know how to write effectively and that good writing really does matter. The message to students is clear: Your writing is good enough for whatever tasks will come your way once you leave school's sanctuary.

In practice, the problem worsens. Most firms offer only a few hours' training to their recruits, even though the best recruits may be mediocre writers. Some large firms invest fair sums of money and large amounts of time in substantive training — a workshop on advocacy, a seminar in the fine points of securities trading, the art of taking depositions — which is a measure of what they think is valuable. Many bosses have been poorly trained themselves and cannot improve upon the inept writing of their juniors, so the prose deteriorates further. The occasional partner outraged at some bit of mangled syntax might circulate a memo on "the five rules of good writing," as if these idiosyncratic rules (themselves quite likely to be wrong) could solve the problem. Solo practitioners and lawyers at small firms receive little guidance; what they see is the often marginal, convoluted prose of their adversaries and judges.

The lawyer's writing problem is compounded by the different forms that poor writing can assume. When lawyers discuss bad — and good — writing, they mean diverse things. Solving minor difficulties, they may believe they have overcome all. At a prosperous West Coast law firm we visited, a fourth-year associate bragged about how well she and some of her colleagues wrote. Of her boss, she said, "He knows how to write; he knows the difference between that and which."

The "that-which" distinction is an occasional issue in English usage, but this knowledge is scarcely the height of the writer's skill. The writer must contend with scores of other usage problems, and usage itself is only one of many elements a skilled writer must master. Yet all too many lawyers believe that good writing means only mastering a few simple rules.

To prove that they are good writers, or at least that they care about well-ordered sentences, many lawyers, including the West Coast associate, point to a tattered copy of Strunk and White sitting on the bookshelf. The Elements of Style, that venerable volume on good usage, was published in 1918 and rediscovered in 1957 when one of William Strunk's students, E. B. White, reminisced about the book in the New Yorker. For many lawyers, it epitomizes the craft of writing. For decades, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta has provided a copy to every lawyer admitted to practice.

In 1919, when it was first circulated on the Cornell campus, Strunk said The Elements of Style was a good "little book." As a brief summary of some useful rules, it does belong on a writer's shelf. But The Elements of Style is also unsystematic, chaotic, limited, and sometimes unhelpful. Here, for example, is how Strunk and White explained that and which: "That is the defining, or restrictive pronoun, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive." Accurate, surely, but how does it help?

In a devastating and widely discussed critique of the book, Geoffrey K. Pullum, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, wrote: "The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it." Pullum called William Strunk and E. B. White "grammatical incompetents" who were unqualified to give the advice that all too many people have been following since 1959, when the book was published in its current form.

Lawyers' misplaced reliance on Strunk and White is emblematic of a limited perspective on writing. Good writing is an elusive concept, but it is certainly more than adherence to elementary rules of usage, punctuation conventions, or idiosyncratic capitalization "rules." Among its attributes, good writing requires originality, imagination, and clarity; it flows seamlessly from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, engaging and educating its readers, who view the prose before them not as a chore but as a valuable use of their time.

Everyone can become a better writer, but becoming one requires attention to several ingredients:

• Vocabulary — the choice of appropriate words

• Organization — the effective arrangement of thought

• Topic flow — the appropriate articulation of concepts

• Transitions — the connections between ideas

• Structure — the proper elements of a document

• Audience — the knowledge held by the expected readership

• Tone — the manner or spirit of addressing readers

• Style — the types of sentences and the cadence of prose

• Clarity — the fit between idea and expression

• Accuracy — the fit between expression and reality

• Timing — when to write and when, and how oft en, to edit

In this book, we write for lawyers who wish to improve their writing — for practitioners who seek to refine their skills and for students who hope to develop them. We look at writing from many perspectives to offer concrete solutions to difficulties of which readers may be unaware. We do not suppose that those who absorb the contents of this book will match Brandeis, Cardozo, or Holmes as stylists. But we do believe that diligent readers will become better writers and that they will be equipped with the means to improve further on their own.


Excerpted from The Lawyer's Guide To Writing Well by Tom Goldstein, Jethro K. Lieberman. Copyright © 2016 Tom Goldstein and Jethro K. Lieberman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Tom Goldstein is former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and author of Killing the Messenger: 100 Years of Media Criticism (1989) and The News at Any Cost: How Journalists Compromise Their Ethics to Shape the News (1985). Jethro K. Lieberman is Associate Dean, Professor of Law, and Director of the Writing Program at New York Law School, as well as Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. He is the coauthor of The Lawyer's Craft: An Introduction to Legal Analysis, Writing, Research, and Advocacy (2002) and author of A Practical Companion to the Constitution: How the Supreme Court Has Ruled on Issues from Abortion to Zoning (California, 1999).

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The Lawyer's Guide to Writing Well 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Richmond-Chambers More than 1 year ago
When Shakespeare penned his 'kill all the lawyers' line - forget which play. don't ask - he might have had it in mind that even in his day, the often bombastic outpourings of the then legal leading lights were a bit long on pomposity and a little short on clarity. It would seem that in the intervening centuries, not a lot has changed - hence the need for this terrific book aptly titled 'The Lawyer's Guide to Writing Well' by Goldstein and Lieberman. This is one guide to writing well that's written well - very well. It's immensely readable, laugh-out-loud amusing, yet deadly serious. It is not a new publication, having been around on the shelves of university bookshops worldwide for a while, but the advice it provides is timeless. In our opinion it should be in the library of -- or preferably at the right hand of -- every lawyer in the English speaking world. Lawyers who are at least dimly aware of the need for clear, concise communication should, if there's any justice, end up with a lot more grateful clients as a result of having read and noted the contents of this book. As the Washington Post commented, 'lawyers.need writers, or at least a guide like 'The Lawyer's Guide to Writing Well' to help them put together a sentence that the rest of the world can understand.' 'The book's authors provide straight-to-the-heart advice for lawyers who want to face the music and turn over a new leaf in their writing.a book deemed worth having,' intones the Harvard Law Review. 'Deemed?' Uh oh! We have just perused the useful and trenchant Usage Notes section at the back of the book and have come across the word 'deem' and the authors' low opinion of it. 'Many lawyers love this word, for no apparent reason,' they say rather unkindly. In their view, no way should you say that something is 'deemed' inappropriate. Say instead that something is inappropriate -- like over reliance on clichés, for example. Goldstein & Lieberman may sound a little punctilious at times and quick to mock and scorn, but they do it gracefully. And how refreshing it is to read a readable book on English usage which blasts the incessant and almost compulsive use of jargon, not just in the law, but in management-speak, techno-speak, psychobabble and just about everywhere else, including the media where folk should know better. The book's overwhelming endorsement of plain, precise English is encouraging and certainly positive. 'Does bad writing really matter?' challenge the authors, arguing convincingly that it does. It matters terribly if meanings are distorted or obscured, judges and juries puzzled and clients confused. We once saw a bumper sticker on the back of a car at university which read: 'Eschew obfuscation'. Think about it - and if you don't get it, you are a lost cause, so don't bother reading this book, then. If you do get it, you need this book to tell you how to do it. Or if you do know how to do it, you'll find 'The Lawyer's Guide to Writing Well' a useful guide to good English usage for your more verbose and obscurantist colleagues.