Your Voice

Writing advice for lawyers from nonlawyers

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Joachim B. Steinberg

Joachim B. Steinberg. (Photo courtesy of Crowell & Moring)

From pretty much the moment that we start law school, we get advice on how to be better writers. Most of it is from lawyers (or ex-lawyers). That’s fine to start. Legal writing is a genre and has unique considerations that you have to master, if only because courts demand it, like The Bluebook.

But if you want to get even better at legal writing, remember that good prose is good prose. There’s a reason why one common piece of advice to lawyers is to stop trying to sound like a lawyer. And lawyers—even litigators—do a lot of writing that isn’t for courts. We write for our colleagues, opposing counsel and busy clients.

In those contexts, stilted legal writing is even worse. The paradoxical solution on how to improve your legal writing is to take a step back and focus on being a better writer, not merely a better legal writer.

With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite works on writing which, though not written for lawyers, most lawyers would find helpful.

1. George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

The same staleness and vagueness that bedeviled George Orwell in political writing also ruins legal writing. Orwell’s advice, particularly on word choice, remains one of the best ways to think about how to write.

2. Christopher Lasch, Plain Style: A Guide to Written English

An unforgiving, funny and well-reasoned approach to writing, with acute takes on sentence-level structure. Christopher Lasch also includes a section, “Characteristics of Bad Writing,” which on its own would make his work a good resource. That section is particularly helpful for anyone who, like me, got frustrated with the law school pedagogy where something by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson would be put in front of you, and you’d be told to “write more like that.”

3. James Baldwin, If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?

I know I just made fun of the teaching style in which someone suggests that you try to copy the greats without any other direction. But if you can’t learn something from the greatest American essayist, I don’t know what to tell you. Take an especially hard look at how clearly James Baldwin frames the argument in this essay, despite the interdisciplinary breadth of his subject.

4. Virginia Woolf, A Letter to a Young Poet

Virginia Woolf has two pieces of advice that all lawyers should listen to. First, you have to write a lot, even on work that will never be published (or filed). Like any skill, you have to get reps in to get better at it. Even better: Spend some time reflecting on what you’ve written. Look back at old briefs and letters. It can be humbling, but it’s worth it. Second, “it is impossible to read too much.” If you want to be a better writer, read as much and as widely as you can. Spend the time to think about what you found effective or ineffective.

5. Stephen Jay Gould, Why No One Hits .400 Anymore

One of the key jobs you have as a legal writer is to convey complex ideas to audiences who know less about the topic than you. This essay is one of the best examples of that I’ve ever found.

6. Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

There are many books on grammar, but for lawyers with not much time and a strong urge to understand why rules exist, this is one of the best resources out there. It explains the rules, the reason and the history behind them—and when you can consider breaking them.

I’m sure I’ve left out some great works. But the point remains the same: If you want to be a better legal writer, be a better writer. Learning from writers who would never even think of using the words “pursuant” or “heretofore” not only makes you a more convincing advocate but helps you unlearn some of the bad habits lawyers have passed on to you.

Based in San Francisco and New York, Crowell & Moring counsel Joachim B. Steinberg supports clients on commercial, technology and intellectual property litigation from coast to coast. Steinberg has experience across multiple industries, including software, aeronautics, video games and startups. He also has experience across fields of law, including trademark, copyright, trade secrets, antitrust and privacy. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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