Legal Writing

What's the secret to writing a good search prompt?

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“You have to think of AI as a witness you are cross-examining,” says Troy Doucet, an attorney and a co-founder of, a legal artificial intelligence platform. “Good prompts yield good results.” (Image from Shutterstock)

Lawyers may be excellent when questioning on the stand, but when it comes to cross-examining artificial intelligence, they may need an assist.

With generative artificial intelligence, it’s all about the search prompt. This is the optimal mix of words to form the question or the statement that you input into the system to receive a response. According to experts interviewed by the ABA Journal, inputting an effective search prompt is a learned skill that’s typically in its infancy for the majority of lawyers, as generative AI is still a relatively new concept.

“You have to think of AI as a witness you are cross-examining,” says Troy Doucet, an attorney and a co-founder of, a legal AI platform. “Good prompts yield good results.”

First, start with a clear objective in mind, Doucet says. What information do you ultimately want to obtain, and in what context or scenario does that information exist? The more specific that you can be, the better.

For example, a not-so-helpful prompt might be: “Tell me about privacy laws in California.”

“This is vague and lacks context, leading to a broad and possibly irrelevant response,” says Ryan Mazur, an attorney with Mazur Legal Research specializing in providing legal research and writing services to attorneys throughout the United States.

A better prompt, Mazur says, might be: “Can you provide a summary of the latest California Consumer Privacy Act compliance requirements for small businesses operating online in California, including any recent changes in 2024?”

This prompt, Mazur notes, is specific, it includes jurisdiction, it mentions a time frame, and it guides AI to provide a focused and relevant answer.

When thinking about the prompt, it’s important to be as specific as possible, clearly defining the legal issue and including relevant facts, plus legal standards or tests that should be applied. Remember to include jurisdiction, and mention any outcomes or considerations that you’d like included, such as caselaw or statutory interpretation, Mazur says. Also indicate the purpose of the information that you’re requesting: Is this going to be used to draft a brief? To advise a client? To understand a new regulation?

“This helps the AI tailor its response to your needs,” Mazur says.

When writing the prompt, use plain English and avoid legalese.

“Although you’re an attorney, the AI’s understanding of context improves with clear language,” he says.

When helping AI with the context, you should also explain the ground rules. Tell the AI who you are and why you’re asking the question, says Patrick Keenan, a law professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.

Keenan may say: “I’m a law professor at an American law school, and I need to explain a legal concept to my law students. In your answer, refer only to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which are published by the ABA. Do not refer to any other materials. Do not make up any cases, rules or regulations.”

Strong chains

Generative AI’s output improves if you continue writing prompts (also known as prompt chaining), adding detail and reworking the questions. The more details that you include—such as tone, the desired depth of discussion and the target audience—the better the outcome, says David Coale, a partner and leader of the appellate practice at Lynn Pinker Hurst & Schwegmann in Dallas.

For example, here’s a well-constructed prompt suggested by Charles Nerko, a partner and leader of the data security litigation team at Barclay Damon in New York: “Revise the legal text provided to align with the standards of top-tier court submissions. Ensure clarity at a 12th grade reading level without compromising depth. Incorporate active voice, simple yet elegant language and parallel structure. Keep sentences varied but concise, emphasizing strong verbs while avoiding nominalized verbs. Organize the content logically with headings, topic sentences and seamless transitions. Minimize jargon unless widely understood, and prioritize precise, professional terminology. The goal is to achieve conciseness and clarity while preservice all legal nuances.”

When thinking about your prompt, consider how you’d explain a task to a high school student: Offer sufficient details for someone who is intelligent but lacks legal, business or case-specific experience, Nerko suggests.

If all fails, try again. Regardless of the response that Keenan receives, he always asks again. The answer may change, even if you ask the same question—or you may notice a small problem with it.

Not quite getting the answer that he needs? Keenan may tweak his question again, continuing to push until he gets something useful. While ChatGPT is designed to only respond with about 500 words for each prompt, you can always write: “Go on” or “Expand” to get more information if it’s on the right track.

If you continue to struggle and you’ve entered plenty of clear, detailed prompts, then you may be using the wrong generative AI tool, Keenan says. Some, he says, are trained on the public internet, while others learn from a closed corpus of legal materials. In other words, prompt practice makes prompt perfect.

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