Better Beginnings in Legal Writing

Looking for ways to inspire your legal writing? How do you keep your legal reader’s attention? What makes the best “fact” sections stand out in legal writing? Three words: character, conflict and arch. We consider these storytelling techniques to achieve enticing, compelling beginnings in my recent Law & Literature article from The Columbus Bar’s “Lawyer’s Quarterly.

https://issuu.com/columbusbarlawyersquarterly/docs/cblqfall2018/6

 

 

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Best Lawyers, Best Writers

storyThe best lawyers are the best writers. Such lawyers command the technical and professional skills required of all legal writers, while also deploying the sometimes subtle tools of narrative nonfiction and novel writers. Those writer’s tools include a sense of character, conflict and story arch that drive all moving stories. The tools also involve story structure, plot development, and scene setting, among others. Yet those tools are rarely taught in law school legal writing courses. Law & Literature seeks to highlight the usefulness and enjoyment of storytelling for legal writers, without sacrificing the professional, ethical and technical sophistication required of the best legal writing.  Let us all strive to become better “legal storytellers.”

Law-Lit: Telling Better “Legal Stories”

images-2A winning legal argument works much like a compelling story. So much so, in fact, that we might say their overlapping functions follow their shared forms. These underlying forms are by no means equivalent, but their matching anatomy reveals how both good stories and good lawyers win us over.

Let’s take story first. What makes a riveting story? At least five essentials:

  1. Setting: selected details to create a story world that invokes our senses and suspends our disbelief
  2. Character: people who engender our empathy, who want or need, who struggle, and who change through conflict
  3. Structure: conflict-driven and causally connected events that culminate in success or failure for the characters
  4. Theme: a moral premise or underlying message about how we should live our lives
  5. Style: the artist’s stamp of skill, creativity, and expertise that lends to the story’s believability

Now compare the essentials of legal argument, broadly speaking. What ingredients yield the most persuasive legal positions?images-1

  1. Details: selected facts to invoke our senses relevant to the legal dispute, or what we call “legally relevant facts”
  2. Motives: parties in the legal dispute must engender our empathy – we must understand their needs, wants, and goals
  3. Coherence: conflict-driven legal reasoning (i.e., legal argument) coupled with story to create “narrative-driven argument”
  4. Theme: a moral premise or underlying message about how we should live our lives
  5. Credibility: the lawyer’s believability, stemming from skill, practical wisdom, knowledge, and expertise

As we see, these two structures track one another in meaningful ways:

  • Details – Setting: we select the right details to invoke the senses and create a believable, engaging world
  • Motive – Character: we engender empathy for the struggling people at the center of this conflicted world
  • Coherence – Structure: the conflict resolves through striving, confrontation, and change
  • Theme – Theme: moral underpinning that gives larger meaning and connection to us
  • Credibility – Style: skill, expertise, and credibility show in the work, the work of a professional who cares

imagesNot a perfect overlap, by any means, but surely one worthy of our further study and reflection. The key differences, too, deserve our attention. This is yet another law-lit mission for us – to improve our understanding and practice of both law and literature by exploring their fundamental forms. These forms might help us tell better “legal stories” to serve our clients and the legal system, never failing our overarching duty to truthfulness and justice.

Law-Lit’s Mission: Imagination, Emotion, Story

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  1. We revive our moral imaginations and intellectual empathy to compliment legal reason as a path to solving law’s problems.
  2. We engage our emotional and intuitive faculties as foundations for sound judgments in law.
  3. We discover storytelling, along with fiction and nonfiction techniques, as routes to understanding law and better writing in the legal profession.
  4. We aim to become more adept with stories, reading, and writing to enhance communication and persuasion.
  5. We seek to ethically attune ourselves to the rewards and challenges of a fulfilling career – if not a calling – in the law.

3 Reasons We Need Law and literature

  • To do Justice!  “That’s not my job, my job is to apply the law,” famously retorted Oliver Wendell Holmes. Hence the conventional view of law: we apply known rules to guide conduct and make results predictable. Justice is secondary, if it concerns us at all. But this view disappoints, leaves us cold. We need to commit ourselves to seeking justice. We need a live debate about fairness and reason in law. We share responsibility for justice, not to hide behind our professional masks, our lawyerly jargon, and our habitual responses to legal problems. We should not leave justice to lawyers only, certainly not of the Holmes variety, but should include other voices. Literature offers many wise voices. We should listen to them.
  • To know injustice. Stories focus on particular, concrete instances of injustice. It is easier to know injustice than justice. Broad legal generalizations and rules can seem vapid, incomplete by comparison. Exposing ourselves vicariously through literature to concrete harm, loss and unfairness refines our sense of injustice. Such exposure tests our general legal propositions. And it prompts us to imagine how law might change to rectify injustice. Telling stories can ignite our moral imaginations.
  • To stop cruel formalism. Forms used to seek justice can themselves be infected with cruelties and frailties that produce injustice. We must examine our legal system’s penchant for formulaic, pat approaches to legal problems. We must counter consistency, predictability and efficiency with the realities – if not virtues – of flux and uncertainty at the core of most efforts to seek justice. This is not to deny the preeminent values of our legal system, but rather to embrace the humility that should accompany our various legal forms, procedures and rules. Literature can chasten and instruct us.

See Outside The Law: Narratives on Justice in America by Susan Richard Shreve and Porter Shreve, Editors (Beacon Press Boston, 1997) (My summary above draws from and distills the book’s introduction by Martha Minow).

Why Law and Literature?

Simply put, law and literature helps law students and lawyers achieve the following laudable goals:

  1. To become better at persuading – especially writing. The best writer often prevails in our legal system.
  2. To make sure our persuasion satisfies high ethical standards. Never sacrifice your ethics to win.
  3. To give us a vocabulary to explain our dissatisfaction with much legal analysis. Law’s conceptual tools alone do not explain justice and injustice. We need more.
  4. To look outside the strictly legal domain for perspective on law – we can’t solve a problem from within that problem.
  5. To allow a more nuanced, sophisticated appreciation of ambiguity in law. Ambiguity about factual matters, about indeterminacy in legal decisions, and about what constrains our courts in interpreting and applying law.

These are just a few of law-lit’s contributions to the intellectual and moral lives of all those who care about law and justice.

Write with Style

Scholar Helen Sword studied as many writing guides as she could lay her eyes on. She saw six points of unanimous advice:

1. Clarity, Coherence, Concision: write sentences that are clear, coherent, and concise.

2. Short or Mixed-Length Sentences: write short sentences or vary sentence rhythm with alternating short and long sentences.

3. Plain English: avoid ornate, pompous, Latinate, and waffly prose.

4. Precision: avoid vagueness and imprecision.

5. Active verbs: active verbs should dominate your writing; use passive verb constructions sparingly.

6. Tell a story: create a compelling narrative.

On drafting sentences, in particular, she offers three guiding principles:

1. Employ plenty of concrete nouns and active verbs, especially when writing about abstract concepts.

2. Keep the nouns and verbs close together in your sentences, so that readers know “who’s kicking whom.” In other words, keep the actor and the action close together; express the crucial actions in verbs and the central characters (real or abstract) in subjects.

3. Avoid clutter: keep your sentences free from extraneous words and phrases.

How to put these principles regularly in play? Sword offers help here too.

1. Check the health of your sentences by pasting them to http://www.writersdiet.com. The “WritersDiet” test will categorize your sentences as “flabby” or “fit.”

2. Replace at least a few “be” verbs (be, been, is, are) with active verbs.

3. Identify your passive constructions and decide whether they add syntactical variety or offer other justification for inclusion. Too many passive phrases wilt the sentence.

4. Make sure at least one sentence per paragraph contains a concrete noun or human entity as its subject, immediately followed by an active verb.

5. A noun and its accompanying verb should pack a quick, one-two punch. Readers lose interest when more than a dozen or so words separate the actor (subject or noun) from the action (verb).

6. When writing about inanimate abstractions, still use active verbs to “animate” them.

7. Cut down on prepositional phrases, especially when they string together long sentence with abstract nouns.

8. When possible, explain abstract concepts using concrete examples (which, for brevity’s sake, I’ve violated in this very blog post!)

As many writers before Ms. Sword have pointed out: there is no writing, there is only re-writing. And, I would add, reading about re-writing. On that score, we should all read (and re-read) Ms. Sword’s engaging practical guide, “Stylish Academic Writing.”