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How to make your legal writing stand out in law school—a three-step process

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Legal Writing

Producing high quality legal writing is vitally important to your success—but it’s difficult to learn. We dedicate an entire year to learning legal writing in law school, yet most legal writing still isn’t good. How is that possible?

Ask any lawyer, and she will tell you that she is a superb writer. But as a profession, lawyers are producing more dense, convoluted, and error-prone writing than ever before. While learning the rules for legal writing is important, the real key to becoming a great legal writer lies in how you allocate your time. Follow this advice, and it will help in your class assignments and in your internships.

Why legal writing goes bad

Most legal writing is bad because we do not use our time properly. We mistakenly believe that all we need to know is the law and we don’t think much about the process or presentation. But how we present information is as important as accurately stating the law. Without clear, concise, and consistent presentation, legal analysis and nuance will be lost.

It takes a well-honed process to get it right. The quality of your final written work will reflect the care and forethought that went into your work. Can you imagine how much better your work could be if you allocated enough time to every stage of the writing process?

The process for successful drafting

Legal writing is a process. It involves planning, writing, revising, editing, and proofreading. It’s easy to mistake the act of typing words as the entirety of the process. But it isn’t. When writers do this, the first draft is the only draft that they’ll ever write. It doesn’t have the opportunity to evolve.

According to a study conducted by McLuhan and Davies, a Toronto-based consulting firm specializing in communications, effective writers spend:

  • 40% of their time planning and outlining;
  • 25% of their time writing a first draft; and
  • 35% of their time revising, editing, and proofreading.

Legal writing is no different. The secret to producing the best document in the least amount of time, is to have a process based on careful time management.

Step I: Planning and Outlining

Most law students (and in fact most legal authors) get this step wrong, especially under time pressure. However, no matter what the deadline is, if you commit to spending more of your time planning and outlining, then the eventual output will be far better (and you will save time not having to make revisions at the end). If it is a 10-hour assignment, then four hours should be spent planning.

The first part of planning is to think about your topic and get something written so that you can go back to it. You can try a zero draft where you write anything that comes to mind for a specified period of time without regard to structure. You can also try mind mapping, clustering, or idea trees. The goal is to get something written.

The next step is to organize your information. Focus on your main points, your goals, and your audience. Decide what to include and what to cut. After you’ve organized your information, you should be ready to create an outline with headings, subheadings, and main topics.

Learning the tools of the legal trade will help here. Using MS Word styles for your headings and subheadings will give you an outline that you can use while you write. Your headings and subheadings will show up in the navigation pane in your document on the left side. The navigation pane combined with styles gives you a living outline of your document that you can see as you write. Seeing your outline will help you adhere to the structure you set out. You can even move pieces of your document around using the navigation pane.

Step II: Writing the First Draft

The groundwork you laid by planning ahead will ensure this takes less time than you think. So review your outline and begin writing. The goal of the first draft is to get completed thoughts written out so that you may start to edit and your draft can evolve. Remember that the first draft should take only 25% of your time.

As you write, make sure that you are sticking to your outline and not including stray or disconnected ideas. Restraint on the front end means that you will have less to cut or focus when you edit. In your first draft, you are simply filling in your outline with content and fleshing out your ideas.

Step III: Revising, Editing, and Proofreading

If this is a 10-hour assignment, 3.5 hours should be spent on this part of the process. Most legal writers only spend 10% of their time here—and it shows. But don’t mistake these three activities as the same. Revising, editing, and proofreading are each distinct tasks that should be done separately. Attempting to combine them will yield poor results.

Revising is the process of re-seeing your document. You are making large- and small-scale organization changes, making your points clearer, and tailoring your writing for your audience. Revising is essential to creating a document that serves its purpose. Most writers will need to revise several times before their ideas are clear and ready for the next step.

Though many people use the terms interchangeably, editing and proofreading are different. Editing is the process of improving content, clarity, structure, and substance. Proofreading is the process of reviewing a completed written document for inconsistencies, spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, formatting mistakes, and typos. Both are integral, inter-related parts of the drafting process. You should make and follow a checklist for each of these tasks because your brain will lose focus if you try to do both at once. Start with more general checks and move on to progressively specific checks.

Tech tools for legal writing

MS Word has some great built-in tools such as spelling and grammar check and the readability test, but great legal writing requires more. By this stage in the process, you will be overly familiar with your work and probably pressed for time. This is where specialized technology will make a difference!

WordRake is an editing tool that helps make your documents shorter and more readable. It improves legal writing style by simplifying and clarifying text, cutting legalese, and recommending plain English replacements. WordRake identifies commonly used legal words and phrases, such as “in addition to,” “pursuant to,” and “in accordance with”—and replaces them with simpler words such as “besides” and “under.” WordRake also fixes passive phrasing and removes redundancies.

PerfectIt with American Legal Style adds polish to your documents. It checks for over 13,000 legal-specific typos, inconsistencies, and other mistakes that no spell check or grammar check can find. It walks you through errors and provides recommended fixes. PerfectIt draws from the legal writing guidelines that every student learns to use (but may not have the time to check). Use it to ensure that this part of the process is as smooth and efficient as possible.

Both programs are inexpensive and fit within a student budget. More importantly, if your finances as a law student make even low-cost software impossible, both programs come with a free trial. So you can at least use them on your student note, your recruiting writing sample, or another important assignment.

Conclusion

Do not wait until you start at a firm and have a hundred other distractions. If you start being a better legal writer today it will help your grades. The key is putting in place a process that gives you enough time for every stage of document preparation. Remember to allocate time for planning, writing a first draft, and then revising, editing, and proofreading. You can manage your time even more effectively if you use low-cost tools like PerfectIt and WordRake to cut the amount of time spent proofreading and editing. These simple steps will help you immediately improve your written work. The result is error-free assignments and clean presentation that will improve the overall impression of your writing and make sure your legal work is looked on highly by your mentors and professors (and in time by lawyers and judges too).