The Write Stuff: Putting on the Style

AuthorAllan C. Hutchinson
Legal writing is something that many students are apprehensive
about. Looked at from the outside in, it does appear to have a certain
character and style that is readily recognizable as different from other
forms of writing. However, while legal writing is touted as a special
style of expression and communication, its precise “specialness”
eludes most efforts to pin it down or teach it. Apart from a lexicon of
new words and a slightly different structure, there is nothing that
should frighten the intelligent or conscientious student. Legal writing
is a craft and, like any craft, it requires practice. Whether you are
learning to ride a bike or play a guitar, it cannot be done by merely
thinking about being a good bike rider or guitarist; it requires a com-
mitment to constant practice in order, if not to be perfect, at least to
be competent. Like legal reasoning, good legal writing is simply the
virtues of good general writing applied to law; there are no secret for-
mulae that are sparingly revealed to students in the privacy of the law
school classroom.
the write stuff
putting on the style
/ 129
Students go through a crisis of confidence when they come to law
school. They think that they have never been able to write well or even
glimpse what that might be. However, students should remember
that they must have acquired some basic writing skills and habits to
get as far as they have. The challenge is to identify those skills, recog-
nize weaknesses that need to be improved, and start the task of turn-
ing those writing skills to good legal effect. If you can develop the
ability to write well, you will have made a large step in becoming a
successful and good lawyer. Indeed, in a recent survey of law firms in
the United States, it was discovered that almost all firms placed a
greater emphasis on the ability to research thoroughly and commu-
nicate effectively than on the acquisition of vast slabs of substantive
law. Acquiring the habits of good legal writing is at least as important
as learning the latest case on contract or tort. It is not an optional skill
that some manage to pick up more easily than others. The determi-
nation to be a good legal writer is something that all law students
must have or must develop. More than anything else, lawyers are
wordsmiths; language is their stock-in-trade. As one commentator
graphically put it, “language is the lawyers’ scalpel. If they cannot use
it skillfully, they are apt to butcher their suffering client’s case.”
In this chapter, I will try to put you on the right path to the write
stuff. After outlining some of the problems with traditional legal writ-
ing and the flawed foundations that undermine efforts to teach good
legal writing, I introduce the basic tenets of good organization that
should underlie legal writing. Using examples of bad and good legal
writing, I list the basic pointers to be followed if you are to avoid the
pitfalls of bad legal writing and to establish the essentials of good
legal writing. Finally, the different exercises of legal writing that you
will be asked to undertake are explained and dissected to reveal the
best and most successful way to approach them.
the wrong stuff
The observation that someone “writes like a lawyer” is rarely made or
taken as a compliment. Very few non-lawyers (or lawyers) hold up
legal writing as a model or style to be copied. Too often, legal writing
130 / the law school book

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT