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The siren song of form books

Shortly after I opened my own office, the attorney I was sharing the space with asked for some help with one of his cases. Since I had not handled such a case before, I was flummoxed at where to start, so he directed me to the wall of books in his conference room that covered everything from abandoned property to zoning codes.

While looking for the appropriate book, I came across a glorious set of tomes known as “form books,” which I would learn contain everything a lawyer could ask for to help draft documents like pleadings, interrogatories, contracts. All one has to do is fill in the blank with the names of the parties and the specifics of your particular case, and you have one grade-A certified, guaranteed to survive any legal challenge, court document, or so the books promise.

At first, I loved the idea behind these form books. As a new attorney, I was wholly grateful that someone else saw fit to essentially generate a book of Mad Libs to make the drafting of various documents quicker and easier. Now that I’ve got a few years under my belt, however, I can also appreciate the risk that comes with a dependence on form books—a risk I hope to help many of you avoid with this post.

Depend too much on form books, and you could wind up losing some of your creative, persuasive, and analytical writing skills.

SirenSure, form books can help you churn out pleadings like a well-oiled machine, but if that’s all you do, how do you think you are going to fare when your client instructs you to write a demand letter to convince the other side that settlement would be in everyone’s best interests. If you’ve done nothing but fill in the blanks for years, you may not be able to flip on that persuasive writing switch all that easily.

If you want an at-home demonstration, grab a piece of paper and a pen, and try to write down some of this blog post…in cursive. Chances are you haven’t written much in cursive apart from your own signature for several years. Okay, maybe you hand-wrote all those thank-you notes for your wedding gifts or, God forbid, you had to handwrite the essay portion of your bar exam. But that’s about the extent of it. Go ahead and try. I’ll be right here.

So, how difficult was it? Did you find yourself pausing to remember exactly how to draw the shape of the B or to count how many bumps you used in “flummoxed”?

In a way, that’s what it would be like trying to write creatively again if you’ve been earning your living out of form books. That’s why I recommend taking some kind of writing course to keep those skills fresh over the years. If you’re a member of a bar association, they likely offer some kind of CLE writing courses, or if you’re looking outside of law, you could always audit a creative writing class at your local community college. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you might even try blogging for a legal newspaper.

By all means, use form books if it makes your job easier, but don’t become so dependent on them that your other writing skills start to atrophy. After all, people don’t remember a technically accurate complaint; they remember an emotionally powerful closing argument.