Writing Better

I got a writing sample in the mail today.

I'm not looking for contract help right now, but if you write better than I do I might give you a shot: smart people seek to hire smarter people. 

One thing that I can do is write; another is edit. So if you send me a writing sample and there are grammatical errors on the cover page (there were), you are not in the running for anything except maybe a free writing lesson.

The lawyer who writes well has an advantage over the lawyer who doesn't. Most criminal-defense lawyers can't write worth a damn, and don't even know it. Official letters leave the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, bound for courts and government agencies and the media, with grammatical and typographical errors. Fortunately, most judges can't write worth a damn either, so they aren't bothered by grammatical and typographical errors. But the rest of them can, and are. It is in order to persuade those judges that lawyers should learn to write better. 

To achieve that goal, buy Garner's Modern American Usage; learn your way around it. Read good writing, and when you see something that is written differently than you would have written it, find the rule in GMAU and follow it. Most importantly, write more and (this is the bit that's going to hurt) pay someone who writes better than you—it probably won't be another lawyer—to edit your writing.


[Here are two common grammatical errors that mark the competent-but-not-expert legal writer:

Phrasal adjectives without hyphens. A state-jail felony could be the same as a state jail felony. A second-degree felony might be a second degree felony. But, dammit, a criminal-defense lawyer is not the same as a criminal defense lawyer. As a matter of style, some writers omit the hyphens when there is no chance that the reader will be momentarily confused by their lack; the better practice is to use them always to signal a phrasal adjective.

Broken parallelisms.  If I had written, "One thing that I can do is write. Another is editing," that would be a broken parallelism. In a parallelism, one thing ought to differ from the other only in the way that is relevant to the point. Improve your writing by paying closer attention to parallelisms. A writing sample I received today included the sentence, "He pleaded true to one 2009 state-jail-felony conviction and one second-degree felony." The first thing (a conviction) should be equivalent to the second (another type of felony conviction), but is not. This sentence could be improved by adding the word "conviction" to the end.

(It could be improved further. I would probably put "true" in quotes, since "pleading true" is a term of art. In fact, I would probably explain the effect of pleading "true": "By pleading 'true' he admitted a state-jail-felony conviction and a second-degree-felony conviction.")]

11 responses to “Writing Better”

  1. If smart people seek to hire smarter people, what do dumb people like me do?

    And I agree that criminal defense lawyers must be about the worst in our profession when it comes to writing. We devoted a law journal issue to criminal defense when I was in law school, going directly to practitioners for articles, and the experience was sheer torture.

    • Less-smart people hire people whom they don’t see as threats.

      Do you think that criminal-defense* lawyers are worse than prosecutors or civil litigators or transactional lawyers or anyone else other than appellate lawyers?

      * Phrasal adjective.

      • I do. But, again, I can only offer anecdotal evidence.

        Most of the students who graduated at the top of my law school class – the people you would assume are the real scholars and writers — took jobs with big law firms where they ended up doing civil litigation and transactions and corporate work. The only people who took jobs as prosecutors or as public defenders tended to be toward the middle of our class.

        Contributing to this trend would be the fact that the public defender’s office didn’t really care about our grades or writing samples. It was most interested in our potential as advocates in the courtroom. I assume this is typical.

        There is a former president of the Harvard Law Review and former Supreme Court clerk who just began work at the PD’s office in D.C. People have been raving about the brilliant, 70-page motions he has been filing that put all the rest of us to shame. But I think he is an exception (if not the first sign of a very promising trend).

        • Curious. Why would you assume that those at the top of your law school class are better writers than those in the middle? They were probably harder-working than you, is all.

          But yes, what the people doing the hiring care about is certainly a contributing factor. Alex Bunin has hired some excellent writers (including Bennett’s Brain Sarah Wood…curse you, Alex Bunin!) for the PD’s Office here.

          “Brilliant 70-page motions”? How is that working out for his clients? The proof is in the pudding, no? (“I apologize for the length of this motion. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”)

          • Heh. I was thinking along similar lines. Too bad the kid can’t be brilliant in a five page motion that the judge might actually read. Too bad the shamed ravers in the office don’t realize it and tell the kid.

  2. Thanks for the link to Garner’s. Since we use our mouths more than our pens, it has been a long time since I’ve evaluated my writing. Writing is one of those skills where you can often develop a level of proficiency and then stagnate. Helping my near college and college aged kids become better writers is making me revisit my skills. Thanks for a good reminder not to let my skills gather dust on the shelves.

  3. Ahhh…once I wrote with flourish and enthusiasm,, evoking illusory reference and metaphor, weaving a veritable tapestry with my loquacious lexicon.. Then I went to law school and got that all beat out of me…:)

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