Things I Like: Tools for Better Legal Writing

One common trait among the best family-law attorneys is that we are always looking to improve. Despite our success, we are rarely satisfied. Even after a positive outcome, we examine the case critically to observe things that, with the benefit of hindsight, we would have done differently. We are constantly learning.

The constant drive to improve is one reason the best lawyers study caselaw — and one reason smart lawyers read this blog.

Letters, motions, memoranda of law, orders, appellate briefs — family-law attorneys write a lot. It’s a critical function of our work.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but many family-law attorneys are not very good at writing. Some are downright awful. We all know lawyers whose letters read like streams of consciousness from a jumbled mind, whose pleadings are filled with page after page of irrelevant information, and whose briefs are nearly incomprehensible. Judges rarely read their arguments carefully or in their entirety, and rarely do they persuade.

Fortunately, all of us can improve as writers. To succeed, we must.

Here are some resources that have helped me become a more persuasive writer who gets better results.

winning briefThe Winning Brief. Bryan Garner is a law professor who has written over two dozen books about English usage, style, and legal advocacy. He is the editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and co-authored two books with Justice Scalia.

His most helpful work is The Winning Brief: 100 Tips for Persuasive Briefing in Trial and Appellate Courts (3d ed.).

The 100 tips are conveyed in separate chapters, many of which are only 3-4 pages long. It’s easy to read, and it has improved my writing.

For example, he advises lawyers to

  • eliminate all legalese,
  • structure legal arguments syllogistically,
  • use footnotes for all legal citations (instead of putting them in the body of the text),
  • avoid meaningless verbiage (like “Comes the Plaintiff, by and through counsel, and respectfully requests that . . .”),
  • lead the reader to reach his/her own conclusions, and
  • use numbered or bulleted lists where appropriate (like the one you’re reading).

If you want to become a more effective advocate, this book is well worth your time. If you’re in Knoxville and don’t want to buy your own copy, you’re welcome to borrow mine.

wordrakeWordrake. Wordrake is an automated proofreader that works as an extension in Microsoft Word to tighten, clarify, and improve the brevity of your writing. It was developed by a lawyer and is popular with lawyers. I use it every day.

Simply draft a document in Microsoft Word, and then use the Wordrake extension to “rake” the document. Wordrake will suggest changes for you to consider, and you can accept or reject each suggestion. I estimate I accept close to two-thirds of its suggestions.

Here’s an example of Wordrake’s suggestions for the excerpt from the Tennessee Supreme Court’s opinion in Cox v. Lucas I quoted in my post on that case:

cox lucas excerpt

Would making some of these suggested changes improve the paragraph? I think so.

Since using Wordrake, my legal writing has improved over time. It’s becoming more common for the program to suggest no changes. When I started, scarcely a sentence could escape the “rake.”

Whenever I “rake” appellate opinions or common legal documents like marital dissolution agreements, the program goes nuts with suggestions. I encourage appellate judges to try it.

Wordrake for Microsoft Word costs $129 for one year or $259 for three years. There is a free seven-day trial if you want to try before you buy.

grammarlyGrammarly. Grammarly is another algorithm-based writing assistant that works in Microsoft Word to scan your documents for grammatical, punctuation, and stylistic errors. It often finds mistakes that my eyes missed.

In my experience, Grammarly complements — but does not replace — Wordrake. The two are not duplicative. They serve different purposes, and I benefit from both.

There is a free version, or you can upgrade to the “premium” version to access the advanced features. The premium version costs $140 a year.

perfectit-logoPerfectIt. PerfectIt is another algorithm-based proofreader popular with legal writers, especially those who draft legal memoranda or appellate briefs. It is great at finding typographical errors and internal inconsistencies, such as using “email” in one location when it appears as “e-mail” in others.

PerfectIt costs $70 a year.

I should add that I have no relationship with Mr. Garner or these companies. I’m not receiving anything from them for this post. I’m merely a satisfied customer who wants to help you become a better lawyer.

If, like me, you welcome our robot overlords and their algorithms, don’t forget the need for robot insurance. I recommend Old Glory.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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