Legal writing? The rules have changed in an age of tweeting and emailing, expert says

By Sylvia Hsieh

The Daily Record Newswire

Forget everything you learned in law school about legal writing, because the rules have changed in the era of the tweet, the text and the two-second attention span of most readers.

Lawyers have been some of the slowest writers to catch up to the changes wrought by new technology, according to Steven D. Stark, a writing coach for lawyers, who recently gave a webinar called "Legal writing in the smartphone age."

Blame it on the Latin and French roots of our legal vocabulary, or training that encourages lawyers to be as verbose and cryptic as possible - exactly the opposite of 21st century communication.

Stark, author of "Writing to Win," gives attorneys some simple rules of the Internet era that lawyers can carry over into writing legal memos, letters and e-mails:

--Lead with your conclusion

State your point first, then explain the steps you took to get there. While this is counterintuitive to most lawyers, Stark advises applying this rule to every section of a legal memo.

"Unless the reader knows where you're heading, it's very difficult to follow what you're saying," said Stark, who is based in Belmont, Mass.

Stark suggests that every time you sit down to write, whether a two-paragraph e-mail or a 30-page memo, think about what you would say if your reader stopped you on the street and said, "Look, I've only got 45 seconds - who are you, what do you want and why?"

--Think like a marketer

Lawyers and advertisers are both in the business of persuasion, says Stark. But lawyers use big words and beat around the bush while advertisers are pithy and direct.

"Great taste, less filling" gets the message across with the fewest words in a memorable slogan.

Choose short words instead of multisyllabic words. Limit sentences to 25 words or less. Use strong verbs in the active tense. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't name his speech "A Dream's Been Had By Me" for a reason.

--E-mail: 150 words max

That's 5-6 sentences. If an e-mail goes longer, Stark attaches it in a PDF and limits his e-mail to say, "This is important, you need to download it and read it carefully."

For e-mail, use the second person, forget excess niceties and if you're not asking the recipient to do something, you shouldn't be sending it at all.

--Web models

Package your memos like Wikipedia and Mapquest.

Mapquest leads with the conclusion, gives directions in the form of a list and gives commands in the second person.

"What you lose in formality, you gain in comprehension," said Stark.

"I wouldn't use it in the U.S. Supreme Court, but I've seen it in the D.C. Circuit, such as, 'If you look at this statute and the regulatory history, you will find....'"

Lawyers can also mimic Wikipedia's use of a table of contents, highlight boxes, links and varied font sizes, colors and types.

These tools can be used in memos to tell the reader how much attention to pay to certain parts, said Stark.

Published: Mon, Aug 1, 2011


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