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?

Why plain English?

Posted: June 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Plain English: Why | Tags: , | No Comments »

Now that you have spent your three years of law school learning a foreign language, the suggestion that you write in plain English may hit hard. Why plain English? What about all those expensive new words? The fancy legalese? The scholarly Latin?

Our clients speak plain English and you should too. Plain English is clean and transparent so it fosters trust. It’s easily understood so it promotes justice and order.  And it shows empathy for our poor readers.  If you want your readers to listen to and learn from what you say, you need to use the language they already know.  Plain English adds value because it makes legal thought accessible.

Not only that, but your clients will like you for it.

I’m posting specific tips and pet peeves under Plain English Tips


What do you think?

How plain is plain English?

Posted: June 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Plain English: Why | Tags: , | No Comments »

Plain English is conversational English. If you would not use a word or phrase when speaking with a colleague, don’t use it in your writing. Imagine you are writing for your Aunt Agatha, your neighbor or your friends on the train. These people will keep you real because they are very very smart and they will not tolerate fussy, impenetrable sentences. (And if you use fussy, impenetrable language in conversation, you problems are far too deep to be resolved in a writing program!)

Simply say each sentence aloud to edit for plain English and to cure clutter and grammatical errors. If you are smart enough to have made it through law school, the grammatical rules of modern English are embedded in your ear. Saying your sentences aloud is the only tool an educated writer needs for effective sentence-level editing.

And plain English does not mean simple English. You are entitled to use your massive vocabulary. But use it to achieve precision and nuance, not to show off your supposed intellectual superiority.

What do you think?

Use familiar, concrete words.

Posted: June 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Plain English: Tips | Tags: , | No Comments »

Use the Editing Workshop, rather than utilize it. Would you rather talk with someone or reach a human interface? Begin your argument rather than commence it. Focus on the beginning, rather than the inception. Explain your thoughts rather than elucidate them. End your memorandum rather than terminate it. Let your argument show rather than evidence your convictions. Use a term but avoid terminology. Follow the signs but ignore the signage. Get out of the car but don’t exit the vehicle. Go inside the house but don’t enter the residence. Remember that courts hold, explain and state but they do not indicate. If a proposal is feasible, it also doable. A statute that prohibits conduct also bans it. Additionally should be pared down to also. And would you ever voluntarily read a sentence that begins with Also of import to the arguments made . . . . ?

What do you think?

Respect for your Readers

Posted: May 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Musings on Writing (and Life) | Tags: | No Comments »

Before your readers will listen to you, they need to know that you have listened to them and that you understand their challenges and their needs. Respect for our readers is the basis for all strong writing techniques.

  • Respect your readers’ time. Be merciful. Don’t take up any more of your readers’ time than necessary. Answer the question, argue the point or lay out the deal as as concisely as possible.
  • Respect your readers’ intelligence. Your readers are highly trained and intelligent, so they expect thoughtful, deep analysis. While you must be brief, it is more important to be thorough. Your readers will give you their time if you reward their effort with deep knowledge.
  • Make it as easy as possible for your readers. Don’t make your readers work any harder than necessary to understand your paper. Write in the language they already know and love–plain English.
  • Satisfy your readers’ curiosity. Your readers are deeply curious. But they are more curious about you as a writer than they are about your topic. Do you know your subject? Are you masterful or just competent? Are you reasonable and worth working with? Use your writing to convey who you are as a lawyer. Let your tone suggest confidence and authority.
  • Focus your readers. Given the competition for your readers’ time, you must focus your readers’ attention for them by leading from the top–the key to effective, professional writing and the principle my book focuses on.
  • Give your readers choices. Headings and introductory sentences allow your readers to choose not to read a section to to mark a section for reading later. Give your readers the option to just say no or later.
  • Keep your readers’ eyes moving. Your readers should be able to move seamlessly from the beginning to the end of your paper. Any style that halts that forward momentum destroys your readers’ trust in you as a writer. (The books explains many techniques to keep your readers’ eyes moving forward.)


What do you think?