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Get to the point

I love to write.

That’s why I’m in the legal profession. But I have quickly come to realize that there is such a thing as too much writing. Exhibit 1 is the excessively long brief that says in 50 pages what the judge later sums up in two sentences. This usually isn’t particularly persuasive, and it certainly isn’t considerate of the people who will have to read what you’ve written when it could have been said far more succinctly.

Last week, the ABA Journal published an article asking whether lawyers should adjust their writing style to account for the differences in how people read online.  The ABA article cited other articles that suggested that what we now know as legal writing “might soon need to morph into something else to suit judges and clerks accustomed to reading differently when text is on a computer screen.”

While this is an interesting proposition, and a reasonable query in light of developing technology, I tend to agree with the Legal Skills Prof Blog, which expresses skepticism that clerks and judges are likely to read briefs online, and that lawyers and judges will ever be willing to “sacrifice thorough analysis in order to accommodate an online reading style.”

But, while I doubt that the legal world will ever go entirely paperless (with apologies to those reading this who are fighting to make that happen), and I doubt that we lawyers need to seriously worry about having our briefs read exclusively online, we should recognize that as people become more accustomed to reading information online, our writing style — even on paper — should evolve to recognize that.

So, while I disagree with the premise that “the legal community is beginning to do more than 50 percent of their reading from screens instead of paper,” I encourage anyone who writes (legal or non-legal) to take advantage of the tips given for writing for the electronic reader. These tips, which include placing the most important content in headings and first sentences of paragraphs (topic sentences, anyone?), using bullet points and lists, simplifying sentence structure, shortening paragraphs, among other things, are universally helpful.

The Volokh Conspiracy also includes a wealth of information and musings on many things, including efficient and accurate legal writing.

Robert Dubose, author of Legal Writing for the Rewired Brain: Persuading Readers in a Paperless World, notes that “[l]egal writers must enable impatient readers to get to the point of the argument in a matter of minutes.” Whether you write things that will be read on paper or electronically, he is absolutely right.