Whether you win or lose a case can often hinge on a single brief, so you want everything to be perfect. But what if you don’t have another lawyer available to look everything over? You can’t edit your own writing, can you? Yes. You can.
Step 1: Walk Away
I’m serious. Put it down. I don’t care if you go have lunch or a coffee, meet with another client, or just check your email, but you cannot edit your brief if you are still in writing mode. Step away from the brief for at least 10 minutes to clear your head. That way when you come back you can read it more objectively.
Step 2: Structure
One of the fastest ways to turn off a judge (or any reader) is to be disorganized. Your brief should walk the judge through the steps needed to reach your conclusion in an orderly, easy to follow way. If there are 5 factors in a test, address them in order. You may even want to use bold headings to set the sections apart.
Step 3: Accuracy
Go back and read each section for accuracy. Does your Statement of Facts match up with the exhibits? Do you cover all the main cases on your issue? Avoid looking foolish in front of the judge (or online). Take the extra time to double-check the accuracy of your statements and the completeness of your arguments.
Step 4: Words
Yes, I know. You’ve been reading the words all along. But now read your brief for wordiness. Are you using unnecessary legalese? Judges don’t want to wade through a lot of Latin or archaic legal terminology any more than your client does. So cut it out! If there is a plain English word, use it. This also applies for complex sentences. Lawyers are notorious for lengthy run-on sentences. Break them up whenever you can. The easier it is for a judge to understand your sentences, the better he or she will be able to understand your argument.
Step 5: Summaries
Now that you are so intimately familiar with your brief’s contents you could probably recite it in your sleep, go back and read your introductory and conclusion paragraphs. Do they give a good summary of your position? Do they clearly convey what you want the court to do? Whether in a brief or a blog, your opening and closing paragraphs are the most important part of conveying your message. Don’t skimp on editing your summaries. Instead, save them for last and savor them like a dessert. Rewrite them as often as you need to to make them count.
A great legal brief can make oral arguments an afterthought. But if your conclusions are buried in complex sentences and legalese, you could have a lot more work to do in the courtroom. Save yourself the trouble. Edit your briefs carefully and make your language count. Your clients will thank you.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a ghost-writer for Legal Linguist located in Ferndale, Michigan. She writes briefs, memoranda, and other legal pleadings for solo attorneys and small firms. If you have more work than you can handle, contact Legal Linguist today to take some of it off your hands.