Nutshell Writing Tips: Be Confident About Your Conclusion

Posted: December 15th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Conclusions, Mission Critical Stuff, Nutshell Tips | No Comments »

Let’s continue with my top writing tips—the concrete techniques that I find myself referring to again and again as I coach lawyers one-to-one. Here is the next tip in the series and the running list is posted below.

Tip Seven: Be Confident About Your Conclusion

Be confident about your conclusion. When writing internal memoranda, young lawyers often hesitate to reach a conclusion on complicated issues and simply answer maybe. A conclusion that says maybe is not worth the cost of the research. A maybe conclusion reads as if the lawyer handed all the research to the assigning attorney with a note saying, “Here’s everything. Now you figure it out.” Always reach a definitive answer. If you must qualify your answer, say yes if … or no if …, then be very specific about the circumstances that trigger a yes or no answer. Explain which scenario is most likely to apply to your facts and why. As I’ve said before, show that you have the courage to conclude.

   The Running List of Nutshell Writing Tips

1. Speak human. Write in plain English. If you would not use a word or phrase when speaking with a colleague, don’t use it in your writing. (By the way, plain English does not mean simple English. You are entitled to use your massive vocabulary, but use that vocabulary to convey nuance and precision—not to show off.) Here are more plain English tips.

2. Say your sentences out loud. Say each sentence aloud to edit for plain English and to cure clutter and awkward constructions. The best writing mimics the cadence and rhythm of human speech. Trust your ear.

3. Lead from the top.  Your opening must establish your command of your subject and “prime” your reader by telling them what to look for. The opening must explain the facts, the problem, and your answer. You should open, at most, in a page and a half. The strongest writing opens in the first paragraph. Leading from the top is the most important rule of all and here is more on how to lead from the top.

4. Begin with the background story. Your target audience is not just the attorney who gave you the assignment, but also the next person who reviews the file and who may not know the background of your case. Always set the stage by introducing the key players, explaining the nature of their relationship, and identifying the problem or issue. (In other words, skip the facts. Tell a story instead.)

6. Lead with your conclusion. Lead from the top by putting your conclusion in the opening page and a half or, better yet, in the first paragraph. Again, the most important structural rule for any expository writing is to lead from the top and that includes having  the courage to conclude.  So be brave and take a stand in the opening of your paper.


P. S. These techniques are a nutshell summary of the key principles in my book, The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing (ABA 2011). Follow the link to see what people have said about the book or to order it from the ABA, Amazon or Itunes. It makes a great gift for your lawyer friends! #shamelessbookpromotion

What do you think?

The Courage to Conclude

Posted: June 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Conclusions, Mission Critical Stuff, Most Popular Posts | No Comments »

Be brave and take a stand. As you make the transition from law school to the professional world, the impartiality you were taught in law school may hobble your ability to be a bold, creative lawyer. Newly minted lawyers are so trained to analyze both sides of a question that they are often reluctant to reach a firm conclusion. But meaningful advocacy requires that you go beyond a slavish repetition of precedent and that you take a position and think originally. Clients and colleagues won’t appreciate spending thousands of dollars to learn that the answer to their question is maybe and a conclusion that says maybe is not worth the cost of the research. So qualify your conclusion if you must, but you must reach a firm conclusion.Your colleagues and clients are paying you to tell them what you think and you should give them their money’s worth.

The best conclusions are often simply a straightforward, one-sentence answer to the question. If your research discloses a definitive answer to a question, begin with yes or no. Yes if and no if are also acceptable provided that the ifs are fact specific, as in The client may pursue his discrimination claim if he files his notice with the agency by February 1. If the answer really is maybe, at least be definitive about being hesitant. Explain any split in the authority, state which view is the weight of the authority, and analogize and distinguish the facts that characterize each line of reasoning.

Assume your Conclusion or Brief Answer is the only thing your reader will read. Because it probably is the only thing your reader will read.

Do it early. A Conclusion or Brief Answer in the beginning of your paper “primes” your readers because it tells them what to look for in the rest of the paper. When you answer the question in more detail later, that explanation will “click” like a puzzle piece snapping into the space that you have already prepared for it. So put your conclusion at the beginning of your paper—in the first paragraph, if you can, and certainly in the first page and a half. Your reader will be long gone by the time you get to the middle of the second page.

State your conclusion in plain English. Imagine running into the attorney who assigned you an issue as she is getting off the elevator and you are getting on. You have only a few seconds to answer her question, How is the Widget research coming? Your quick answer is your conclusion.

Say the conclusion aloud. Saying the conclusion aloud will force you to use plain English and simplify.

Explain why. Your answer should not simply state your ultimate conclusion. It should also explain why you reached that conclusion. Your readers cannot decide whether they agree with your conclusion unless you tell them how you reached it. Telling why in the Answer establishes your credibility .

Avoid hedging language. Hedging language betrays your fear of reaching a conclusion and shows a troubling lack of confidence in your own skills. Avoid language such as I could find no cases on point, it is difficult to determine whether, it is far from certain whether or it is possible that.

Be original.  Although we must base arguments on precedent, a memorandum or brief should never be a simple précis of the cases.  “Wrap” the case discussion in your own conclusion about the research.

A conclusion is like the ribbon on a gift. We put the gift in the box, we close the box, and then we make it attractive by wrapping it in a ribbon.  Your readers see the ribbon first and it’s the ribbon that makes them want to open the box.

What do you think?