Why Writing Well is Essential to Your Legal Career
Writing is a necessary evil to some and a welcome respite to others. But whether you love it or hate it, lawyers spend much of their time writing, and writing well is important to success as a lawyer.
Cooley understood these two facts from the start, which is why Cooley now has a nationally recognized research and writing program. Designed to teach students plain-language writing and techniques that will serve them throughout their careers, the program has raised the legal-writing bar nationwide.
The why of it
Now for the “why.” It’s simple: clear writing is crucial in legal practices because without it, cases that could be won are lost. Providing clear and concise information means there’s less chance for ambiguity, questions, and confusion when you're trying to make yourself understood to judges, other lawyers, and clients.
Professor Mark Cooney, who teaches research and writing, advocacy, and drafting at Cooley, has extensive experience in the courtroom and the classroom, and is a prolific author on the topic of legal writing. Based on his many years in practice, he sees writing as an indispensable tool for all types of lawyers.
“For litigators, plain language is essential not only because it promotes clarity for busy, impatient readers, but also because it's the best way to connect with readers' minds and shape their perceptions about a case,” Cooney said. “Inflated language — so-called legalese and lawyer-speak — never inspires. It is, by definition, ordinary and uninspiring. It robs a lawyer's prose of its potential to connect with the human heart and mind. During my practice years, I was thrilled when my opponents wrote in typical lawyer fashion. I knew that the judge and court staff wouldn't be impressed — and that I had the distinct advantage by striving for clarity and using reader-centered techniques.
“For transactional attorneys, plain language improves users' ability to navigate documents with confidence and understand what their legal rights and duties are. Direct language with informative headings and subheadings makes a document trustworthy and reduces the risk of ambiguity. For a good-faith writer, those are victories worth celebrating.”
In agreement is Distinguished Professor Emeritus Joseph Kimble, author of three books and many articles on legal writing, senior editor of “The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing,” and the longtime editor of the "Plain Language" column in the Michigan Bar Journal. Internationally recognized as a leading proponent of plain language in the law, Kimble addressed the topic during a recent Cooley commencement ceremony.
“Lawyers write and speak for a living. They deal in words, the instrument of thought and surely the greatest of all our inventions,” Kimble said. “If lawyers can’t write clearly and plainly and concisely, then they fail to effectively do their job — which is to communicate with judges, other lawyers, and clients. They’re like a carpenter who can’t drive a finish nail straight.”
The path to writing well
For anyone who has ever experienced writer’s block or for those who just don’t enjoy writing, learning to write clearly might seem a daunting task. But there are many things law students can do to make it easier and much more enjoyable.
From Professor Kimble’s perspective, students need to recognize that writing well isn’t a learn-it-and-leave-it endeavor; it’s a journey.
“First, listen carefully to your legal-writing profs. But writing well — like playing the piano well or becoming adept at any skill — is a lifelong effort. You can’t buy it at Walmart, or even Bergdorf Goodman. So there is really no ‘efficient’ way to do it,” said Kimble.” You have to read widely; notice what good writers do; perhaps keep a notebook of words, phrases, techniques; crave editing; and practice, practice, practice (which is to say write a lot). At bottom, you have to love words and good writing.”
It really is all about words and how to put them to work for you. Professor Cooney agrees that practice is important, but it’s informed practice that leads to improvement.
The most efficient way to improve is "[to] get advice from writing professors and leading texts and then practice those good techniques,” Cooney explained. “Practice alone doesn't make perfect. Many lawyers have written for decades, yet their writing is still unclear and uninspiring. So it's crucial that law students and lawyers read and hear about good writing techniques and practice those good techniques.”
One of the most important things law students can do as they learn to improve their writing is steer clear of legalese. When you understand it yourself, it becomes your job to translate it into language that your reader can understand. In so doing, you accomplish what Professor Cooney sees as your most important job — serving others. In fact, the best piece of writing advice he ever received instructed him to do just that.
“Write to serve people instead of writing to impress people. Ironically, writing to serve people invariably impresses people. Nobody in the legal profession — nobody — is impressed by legalese, which bogs things down and sounds utterly plodding and inelegant.”
Professor Kimble also recommends that students write clearly, in plain language, because those who must read their writing have little time to waste trying to locate the information they need hidden among “turgid prose.” But he quotes cultural historian and writer Jacques Barzun for the plain truth about writing in plain language: “Simple English is no one’s mother tongue. It has to be worked for.”