Supreme Court Justice Kagan on Writing: Know Your Audience

Recently Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan had a chat with legal writing maestro Bryan Garner. Her advice to legal writers was refreshingly down-to-earth: know your audience and have fun.

United States Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is no stranger to the written word. She was the author of six of the Court’s opinions this past term. Before she joined the court, she was a professor and then a dean at Harvard Law School. So when she talks to famous legal writer Bryan Garner about writing, lawyers listen. In the interview reported by the Business Insider:

“There’s not some special magic to good legal writing. . . . To be a good legal writer, honestly, is to know the law, and to be a good writer.”

Many of her recommendations can be boiled down to one rule:

Know your reader.

“A hundred years ago, [the Supreme Court justices] were speaking a very specialized, professional language. . . . They didn’t really care whether that language was understood by anyone outside the case — even by other lawyers, let alone non-lawyers. When you pick it up, you have to translate a little bit. Even lawyers have to do that. I think now, we are very concerned about speaking to the American public. We want the American public to understand what we’re doing, and why.”

For her and the other Justices on the Supreme Court, that means writing for the educated non-lawyer. She attempts to walk the fine line between explaining complicated legal concepts and making sure their opinions are accessible to anyone.

That’s the same tightrope legal bloggers face every week. We write to show our legal expertise, but we are writing to a non-legal audience most of the time. Prospective clients can get lost in our legalese, making us seem unapproachable and opaque.

Whenever we are writing for a general audience – in our blogs, opinion articles, or even letters to clients, it should be our goal to explain terms in a way lay-people can understand. Rather than showing off with complex language we need to focus on transparency. Our focus should be on connecting with our audience and clients.

Have Fun

Sometimes, being personable means having a little fun. As Justice Kagan points out, sometimes a well placed reference or joke can ease tension and still be professionally appropriate. She was the author of Kimble v Marvel Entertainment LLC, deciding whether the petitioner was entitled to royalties for certain Spider-Man branded toys. The opinion includes references to the famous comic book character, including the quote:

“With great power there must also come — great responsibility.”

Law bloggers can take that note from the Justice as well. Blogs are by their nature less formal than Supreme Court Opinions. So if a timely comic book reference isn’t out of line there, jokes and topical references are certainly appropriate online.

In fact, studies have shown that readers like posts that make them happy. One great way to do that is through tasteful humor. Some legal writers use lawyer jokes to make themselves seem more relatable. I prefer to elevate the profession by telling humorous stories from my work. However you do it, breaking up your dry content with anecdotes can make your blog more readable and make you a more likable lawyer.

Lisa Schmidt is a writer for Legal Linguist, located in Ferndale, Michigan. She provides high quality web content for law firms and small businesses. If you need a blog to keep your website up-to-date and relevant, contact Legal Linguist today to schedule a meeting.

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