Friday, December 28, 2012

What's Your Style?

"People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style."
(Matthew Arnold)

Style is not something that immediately jumps to mind when discussing legal writing techniques.  In a profession that celebrates terms such as inter alia, ab initio, and yes, arguendo, the image of a staid world where all the lawyers wear gray flannel suits to work hardly connotes style or personality.

Still, legal writers can, and should, embrace a style all their own.  Read the opinions of Scalia, Posner, Kozinski, and Easterbrook.  There is something that stands out about their writing.  Far from the dense, turgid prose we (and they) read in law school, these writers use plain English, direct prose, a wide vocabulary, and routinely vary their sentence structure and length according to the ideas they wish to express and emphasize.  I recall Judge Easterbook once saying that lawyers should want their briefs to read like an article in The Atlantic.  That is, they should employ a breezy, relaxed style that gently guides the reader through the argument.  

Ultimately, this is the recipe for how to clearly communicate complex ideas to a broad, general audience.  This  may seem more apropos to the work of journalists, but lawyers too - especially appellate lawyers - are often called upon to articulate complex arguments to a panel of judges who adjudicate disputes across a wide array of legal disciplines.  To that end, lawyers must develop and refine a style, lest their work be lost and forgotten under the piles of sub-par briefs that are routinely filed in courts throughout the country.  This is incredibly difficult work, requiring as it does years and years of practicing the art of written advocacy, but the process starts with a simple question: what's your style?  

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