Language is the principal tool of the law profession. Judges, lawyers, legislators and others use words to persuade, inform, advocate and argue. That’s why good writing skills are an essential component of any legal practitioner’s toolbox. But unlike other forms of writing, legal writing has its own specific rules and structure that need to be followed. Whether you’re a first-year law school student, a newly practicing attorney or someone responsible for drafting legal documents, these free legal writing resources will help you master the art and science of written law communications.
But first, some tips you can use to become a better legal writer right now:
Know Your Audience
According to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, considered to be the Supreme Court’s greatest writer, knowing your audience (and connecting with them) is the key to good legal writing: “There is, however, a certain quality possessed by the really great writer—legal or otherwise—that has nothing to do with brainpower…the ability to place oneself in the shoe’s of one’s audience; to assume only what they assume; to anticipate what they anticipate; to explain what they need explained; to think what they must be thinking; to feel what they must be feeling.”
Summarize Your Conclusions First
Readers may get fatigued, especially reading a lengthy legal document; to ensure your point comes through, summarize your conclusions early on while you still have the readers full attention.
Keep Your Writing Simple
Ditch the “legalese” (specialized legal phrases and jargon) and instead write clear and simple sentences that non-legal experts would understand. If someone loses their job, say they were fired not unilaterally terminated. Learn more about plain language in the legal profession.
Adverbs are words that modify an adjective or verb. In legal writing, adverbs are generally unnecessary and do nothing to prove your point. Eliminating adverbs is one of the easiest ways to make legal writing more concise.
Avoid Passive Voice
Active voice clearly tells the reader who did what (an obvious but very important part of any legal document). For example, don’t say the lease was broken; say the landlord broke the lease. Learn more about passive versus active voice here.
Use Clear Headings and Topic Sentences
Headings allow readers to quickly identify the topic you are addressing. Within each “section,” whenever possible, start each paragraph with a clear topic sentence so readers understand what is to come.
Edit, Edit, Edit
Spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors can undermine your credibility as a legal expert or professional. Ruthlessly edit your own work, and ask a colleague or trusted friend for a second set of eyes on any important documents.
Adobe’s open-source Legal Department Style Guide is available to anyone free of charge under a Creative Commons license. According to Adobe, the guide serves as “the foundation for the way we create and revise our agreements and policies and training materials to ensure they are as clear and concise as possible, and that we communicate with a common voice.” Contents include how to organize yourself before you begin writing, principles of document design, general drafting conventions, conventions for agreements, clear writing guidelines and a short bibliography on legal drafting.
Encyclopedic in scope, the Oxford Handbook of Language and Law outlines the role of linguistics across the range of legal areas and describes the tools and approached used by linguists and lawyers in this field. This is a great primer for non-lawyers interested in the relationships between language and law. The introduction (available for free) explains the aspects of “legal language” and the ways in which language and law interact.
The Legal Writing Center at the City University of New York School of Law offers a ton of great online resources to help with all sorts of legal writings, including tips for drafting client letters, law office memorandums and briefs to the court. The Legal Writing Center also provides information on legal grammar and style to help polish your documents.
The Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration, presents this free guide to legal writing to help agencies produce clear, enforceable regulatory documents. Although this resource is intended for federal agencies, anyone can access the guide to learn how to draft a set of regulations. Helpful topics include principles of clear writing, arrangement of legal documents and format requirements for regulatory documents.
According to the British Columbia Law Institute, the law applies to “individuals of both sexes and a variety of entities, such as corporations, that are endowed with legal personality.” This manual explores techniques that may be used in the creation of legal documents that are free of gender-specific pronouns.
Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, tort law, religious free law, church-state relations law and a First Amendment amicus brief clinic at UCLA School of Law. He is also the author of the textbook Academic Legal Writing. Here, Volokh runs through some common “legalese” clunkers, and their simpler, more readable replacements. According to Volokh, “the replacements aren’t always perfect synonyms, but 90% of the time they’re better than the original.”
All lawyers write in the same way: by laying out the issue to be discussed, the legal rule relevant to the issue, the analysis of the pertinent facts based on that rule, and the overall conclusions reached. IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application and Conclusion) is the acronym that generally explains this methodology for legal analysis. This document from Columbia Law School is a primer on how to structure a legal argument using IRAC.
“Typography” is the style and appearance of printed matter. According to Matthew Buttertick, author of Typography for Lawyers, legal documents are professionally published material and “thus should be held to the same typographic standards.” Excerpts from the book are available for free online and include topics such as type composition (e.g., word spaces, ampersands, hyphens, page breaks), text formatting (e.g., underlining, mixed fonts, italics) and page layout (e.g., watermarks, columns, footnotes).
Want to work on your legal vocabulary? Search legal terms and definitions on Law.com’s free online legal dictionary.
Legal research is a critical factor of competent law practice. This comprehensive guide from Florida A&M University Libraries explains the components of legal research, including issue spotting, jurisdiction, making a research plan and performing research in print and online.
“Authority” is another term for “the law.” When performing legal research, it’s important to understand the differences between mandatory and persuasive authority. The UCLA School of Law explains how these types of primary authority are different and how to use persuasive authority as a tool to find cases that are binding (and therefore more supportive of your position or argument).
A brief is a written argument that a lawyer or party to a case submits to the court before presenting oral arguments summarizing the facts of the case as well as the legal reasoning behind their arguments. The U.S. Department of Justice maintains an online database of more than 9,000 Supreme Court briefs spanning from 1985 to present.
Arguments are an opportunity for Supreme Court Justices to ask questions directly of the attorneys representing the parties to the case, and for the attorneys to highlight arguments that they view as particularly important. The Supreme Court maintains argument transcripts and audio as far back as 2010.
The Gallagher Law Library at the University of Washington School of Law maintains an impressive collection of free legal research guides spanning a wide range of topics, including administrative law, constitutional law, employment law, labor law, trademark law and more. Each guide includes free and commercial resources for conducting legal research.
As part of its mission to assist library users with legal research, the Thurgood Marshall Law Library at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law prepares guides to both general legal research and specialized courses. The Guide to Legal Research is a good primer on performing legal research using electronic research databases, legal periodicals, legal encyclopedias and other sources.
CourtListener is a free legal research website containing millions of legal opinions from federal and state courts. With CourtListener, lawyers, journalists, academics, and the public can research an important case, stay up to date with new opinions as they are filed, or do deep analysis using our raw data. CourtListener is a project of the Free Law Project, a non-profit public benefit corporation that seeks to provide free to access to primary legal materials.
The Public Library of Law (PLoL) claims to be “one of the world’s largest free law libraries.” PLoL collects cases from the US Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, cases from all 50 states dating back to 1997, federal statutory law and codes from all 50 states, regulations, court rules, constitutions and more.
The Legal Information Institute (LII) is a non-profit group that believes “everyone should be able to read and understand the laws that govern them, without cost.” They carry out this vision by creating materials and technologies that make it easier for people to find (and understand) the law. Wex is a free legal dictionary and encyclopedia sponsored and hosted by the Legal Information Institute at the Cornell Law School. Wex entries are collaboratively created and edited by legal experts.
This search engine searches for free full text from over 300 online law review and law journals, as well as document repositories hosting academic papers and related publications.
This introduction to basic legal citation was written by Peter W. Martin, the Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law, Emeritus, and former dean of Cornell Law School. Professor Martin is the co-founder of the Legal Information Institute. Also included are a complementary series of video tutorials to citation of several major categories of legal sources, including judicial opinions, constitutional and statutory provisions and agency material.
Published by the Boston University School of Law Legal Information Librarians, this Quick Guide focuses on the areas of legal citation most valuable to new law students (and indeed anyone unfamiliar with legal writing). This guide covers legal citation topics such as abbreviations, signals and parentheticals, and how to cite cases, statutes and secondary sources.
The Indigo Book was compiled by a team of students at the New York University School of Law, working under the direction of Professor Christopher Jon Sprigman. The Indigo Book covers legal citation for US legal materials, as well as books, periodicals and electronic resources. According to Sprigman, “anyone using The Indigo Book will produce briefs, memoranda, law review articles and other legal documents with citations that are compatible with the Uniform System of Citation.”
The Legal Writing Institute (LWI) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “improving legal communication by supporting the development of teaching and scholarly resources and establishing forums to discuss the study, teaching and practice of professional legal writing.” The LWI claims to be the second largest organization of law professors in the United States, with nearly 3,000 members.
The Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD) is a nonprofit professional association of directors of legal reasoning, research, writing, analysis and advocacy programs from law schools throughout the United States. In addition to helpful resources such as the ALWD Citation Manual and Legal Communication & Rhetoric, a peer-edited journal dedicated to the substance and practice of professional legal writing, the ALWD also provides information on upper-level writing requirements at numerous US law schools.
Scribes (the American Society of Legal Writers) is a national organization of legal writers. Members include practicing lawyers, state and federal judges, law-school deans and professors and legal editors. Scribes hosts annual Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminars, publishes The Journal of Legal Writing and offers tips on legal research, writing and grammar.
Ross Guberman is the author of Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates and Point Taken: How to Write Like the World’s Greatest Judges and was the 2016 recipient of the Legal Writing Institute’s Golden Pen award for making “an extraordinary contribution to the cause of good legal writing.” His blog is full of insights, tips and resources for lawyers and non-lawyers alike who want to improve their written communication.
LawProse claims to be “America’s foremost provider of CLE training in legal writing, editing and drafting.” Their blog has hundreds of posts, or “lessons,” covering a wide range of topics designed to improve legal communications.
Marie Buckley is a lawyer, writing coach and author of The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing: Proven Tools and Techniques. In addition to specific categories about different types of legal writings (e.g., letters, memos and briefs), Marie Buckley’s blog also provides tips on proofreading, research, grammar, design and efficient work habits.
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