There will be times when traditional legal writing won’t be the best way to get your point across. Here’s how to write informally and effectively.
Picasso famously said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Beyond the formal “rules” for office memos and appellate briefs, you need another skill set for outside-the- box writing assignments. Sometimes you’ll need to use a less formal writing style—and maybe even make a very careful joke or two—when you:
- Write a blog post for a law firm’s website
- Summarize an attached motion for business readers who don’t want all the “legalese”
- Create a consumer-friendly guide to an area of law
For assignments like this, you’ll need to draw on everything you’ve learned about writing in school, but also what you actually like to read. This may be the only situation in your legal career where surfing BuzzFeed articles provides an advantage. (Especially if you’re assigned to write a viral post on LLCs: “We wrote a partnership agreement for our client. You won’t believe what happened next!”) If an assignment calls for an informal style, writers should follow broad legal writing “rules” and know when to make exceptions. A lot of them.
1. Verify that all content is legally ideas of others—but you don’t have to cite after every sentence. Citations serve many purposes, but they shouldn’t annoy the reader, which is what will happen if they’re too frequent and intrusive for the purpose of the document. For an example of how your reader will feel if you cite too much, look up Prof. Alexander Volokh and his interesting article “Cite Me, Maybe.”
In informal legal writing, you may not really be “citing” in the traditional sense at all, but rather just providing helpful information about the source:
For digitally accessible legal writing—which basically means all legal writing—the reader may appreciate hyperlinks to sources even more than amazing Bluebook citations. (For readers without access to sources like Bloomberg, Fastcase, LexisNexis, and Westlaw, use free and public links.)
Whether you’re writing formally or informally, it’s important to avoid copyright violations and plagiarism and to follow the rules of legal ethics. If you’re using someone else’s words, quote them. If you’re using someone else’s ideas, give them credit appropriately in context. (Note the intentionally informal use of “them” to refer to “someone else” instead of the more formal “him or her.”)
2. Organize the piece of writing— numerals or write a painfully obvious roadmap. Before I launched my legal blog, I drafted several posts and sought feedback from colleagues and established legal bloggers. Some of the best advice I got was from excellent lawyer and blogger Daniel Schwartz of the Connecticut Employment Law Blog. He said, “Stop telling them what you’re going to tell them. Just say it.” He was specifically targeting a sentence that said something like this:
Sound familiar? (Hint: It’s a roadmap!) Informal writing may be able to imply the organization without being so obvious:
Sometimes, however, you may want to make an exception to the exception and call attention to what you’re doing:
(The one infallible rule you can take away from this column actually is this: Never write the sentence above.)
3. Use a logical paragraph include a probative topic sentence followed by detailed illustrative support in most every paragraph. One of the most important takeaways from first-year legal writing is the power of the topic sentence. Some professors call it a thesis sentence. Whatever you call it, the idea is to write paragraphs structured around important statements about the law with detailed support.
However. Informal legal writing should make a point—else why write at all?—but the form of that point may be different than topic/support; another topic/more support; and so on. The same can be said, or shouted loudly from the rooftops, of “IRAC” and its variations.
Maybe the reader wants just the main ideas and not the support. Maybe the reader needs to understand an interesting factual story before any legal principles. Maybe you actually want to tell a chronological story of how the case law evolved, which in formal memos and briefs is often inefficient. And one-sentence paragraphs are not only not forbidden in informal legal writing, but actually may work really well.
4. Edit and proofread carefully — the strictest rules of grammar, so long as all the choices you make are intentional. If legal writing wore clothing, memos and briefs would be in navy suits with oxfords or closed-toe pumps. And just as “business casual” can encompass a frustratingly broad range of style choices, informal legal writing may range from “somewhat less formal than a memo” to very, very casual.
Contractions may be appropriate in a wide variety of informal legal writing. For headings in an email memo, simple bold phrases may be more friendly than full sentences. In writing for social media, you may even try some experimental grammar because Internet. (That’s not a typo; it’s an attempt at the evolving, informal use of “because” as a preposition.)
The preceding sentence is a comma splice, a particular kind of run-on sentence you should avoid even in informal legal writing. It’s such a common error that there really is no way to use it on purpose for any real effect.
And in all forms of your legal writing, you should already be using plain English, as in the classic Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick. Writing in true legalese—whether for a memo or a blog—is like putting your legal writing in a powdered wig and robe: pompous and out of place in the times.
5. Write for your readers—you can use personal pronouns and even questions. You were probably taught to avoid rhetorical questions in your memos and briefs. Here’s an example I encountered as a teaching assistant many years ago:
That kind of rhetorical buildup is not particularly efficient, especially in a memo.
In contrast, for informal legal writing, questions may work nicely. They help a reader understand why legal issues matter:
As these examples show, informal legal writing also may directly address the reader. Personal pronouns—especially “you”—can help you make your writing more engaging.
6. Write powerful and precise text— creative layout choices may help you make your point. Photos and charts are increasingly being used in briefs and judicial opinions, which means they’re certainly options you should consider when writing informally.
A chart may help explain a legal point without seeming like legalese. A photo may capture blog readers’ attention and make them want to read the post even more. (Make sure to avoid copyright violations when using photos.) And the layout itself—such as the use of white space and good fonts—can make informal legal writing even more enticing to the reader. In addition to avoiding the rule against perpetuities, you can also walk away from this column knowing never to use Courier.
Emory student Asif Hossain provided assistance and feedback, and professors Ruth Anne Robbins and Kristen Tiscione engaged in helpful discussions on informal legal writing.