As part of its Community Conversations series, WMU-Cooley Law School’s Kimble Center for Legal Drafting held its third annual public seminar, “More Hot Tips for Better Legal Writing and Drafting.” The June 30 virtual discussion was hosted by WMU-Cooley Professor Mark Cooney. The panelists were University of Sydney Professor Emeritus Peter Butt, Clarity International President and WMU-Cooley Professor Emerita Julie Clement, and WMU-Cooley Professor Emeritus Joseph Kimble.
Over 130 people registered for the conference, and they hailed from cities around the globe, including Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Paris, France; Playa del Carmen, Mexico; Warsaw, Poland; Mexico City, Mexico; and many cities in Canada. They commented that the seminar was “very informative,” “an outstanding presentation,” “Brilliant. I shall quote you all – leading authorities,” and “an amazing session.” One participant said, “I am a member of two Court Rules Committees in my state and will be sharing this helpful information.”
Professor Butt covered the overarching principle of structure in legal writing, that is, presenting information in the best way possible for the reader. He considered that, while attention to the finer points (such as word choice, sentence length, and active voice) remains crucial, plain-language proponents have increasingly realized the importance of structure in getting the message across. No longer is it sufficient to say, “It’s all there.” Instead, we have to ask, “Is it in the best place to help the reader understand the document in a single reading?”
Butt offered three possible document structures (with examples): front-loaded, thematic, and chronological. What is the best structure depends on the intended audience and the nature of the particular document.
Professor Clement noted that readers are consuming information differently than they have in the past, engaging in what she refers to as “skim and scan.” Rather than read an entire document from beginning to end, they often look to immediately find an answer to a question or problem.
“For the documents that we’re drafting, we’ve studied the content, we know what’s in there. But when you put it before a reader who doesn’t know it, you want to make it as easy as possible for that reader to find, understand, and use that information,” Clement said.
Clement encouraged legal writers to draft for the reader, not a hypothetical judge, choosing only those details that the reader needs. And she suggested that good design can communicate as effectively as words and sentences. These design tools include headings to help readers navigate, white space to mark off the different pieces of information, limited use of all-cap words (“screaming” at the reader), and graphics elements to quickly convey content.
Professor Kimble focused more narrowly on what he called “two of the worst faults of traditional legal writing”: long sentences and needless repetition. And to remedy each affliction, he offered several specific techniques, using before-and-after examples from a forthcoming book he is writing with Bryan Garner: Guidelines for Drafting and Editing Legal Rules. The authors have been the drafting consultants on the projects to “restyle” all five sets of federal court rules.
Among Kimble’s tips: break up compound sentences; start sentences with coordinating conjunctions (And, But, Or); repeat a key word or idea at the beginning of a new sentence; use pronouns; omit what’s clearly implicit.
The full presentation can be viewed at WMU-Cooley’s YouTube channel. And for more on the Kimble Center for Legal Drafting: https://www.cooley.edu/academics/kimble-center-writing