7 Legal Writing Tips for Law Students

What writing skills you’ve learned as an undergraduate will come in handy in law school, but they probably won’t be enough. Legal writing demands a specific set of skills and a deep understanding of legal concepts and procedures. You’re not just conveying information, you’re arguing, persuading, and analyzing within a highly structured framework. Whether you’re drafting a brief, a memo, or preparing for moot court, these 7 tips will help you master the art of legal writing.

A law student on a laptop diligently working on his legal writing skills.

1. Embracing Legal Writing as a New Discipline

You may have been praised for your writing in the past, but that alone doesn’t mean learning legal writing will be easy. Legal writing is more than an extension of general writing. It’s a discipline of its own. Your audience isn’t looking to be entertained or impressed. The goal is specific, the rules are strict, and the stakes are high. Trying to sound poetic or intellectual will come off as pedantic. In fact, any kind of artistic license will more than likely be a negative. Writing with clarity and precision is the top priority.

2. Clarity and Precision

Many cases you read for class will be full of long, indirect, technical sentences, but the modern legal community expects clear, concise, and readable writing. Don't be tempted to imitate old-school legalese like “heretofore”, or “aforementioned.” Instead, learn to recognize the difference between outdated jargon, legitimate legal terms, or “terms of art.”

In addition to clarity and precision on a sentence level, your writing should be well organized, presenting arguments clearly and logically. Here are some common legal writing and analysis frameworks:

     IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) — Use to break down and analyze legal cases or hypotheticals.

     Issue: Start by identifying the legal question or issue at hand.

     Rule: Next, outline the rule or law that applies to the issue.

     Application: Then, apply the rule to the facts of the case.

     Conclusion : Lastly, conclude by stating the outcome based on the application.

     CRAC (Conclusion, Rule, Application, Conclusion) — Useful when you want to state your main point up front, like in persuasive writing or when the reader is more experienced and prefers to know the outcome first.

     Conclusion: Start with a conclusion or the answer to the legal issue.

     Rule: Follow up with the rule or law relevant to the issue.

     Application: Apply the rule to the facts of the case.

     Conclusion: End with a restatement of the conclusion.

     CREAC (Conclusion, Rule, Explanation, Application, Conclusion) — Great for more complex arguments where the rule needs more clarification.

     Conclusion: Start with the conclusion or answer to the issue.

     Rule: Then provide the rule or law.

     Explanation: Here, you explain the rule for clarity or context.

     Application: Apply the rule to the case's facts.

     Conclusion: Finish with a restatement of the conclusion.

3. Research and Organization

Legal writing begins before you jot down your first word. The better you get at prewriting tasks like research and structuring your argument, the easier it will be to write clearly. First, you must thoroughly understand your material, like cases, and determine how this information fits into your assignment. Methods vary, but you will likely use some combination of briefing cases and tracking issues, facts, holdings, and reasonings with spreadsheets.

Once you've done your initial research, it's time to organize your argument. Start broad and work your way down to the details. For example, you may discover a few key elements to dig into. Often, your research will shape your organization, but the process of organizing will also help you recognize gaps in your research. Lay out your argument in a well-structured outline, and be prepared to move sections around as needed. Being methodical from the beginning will set you up for success in the long run.

4. Persuasion and Reader-Centric Writing

Legal writing is the art of rhetoric and persuasion. Your goal is to convince your reader, typically a judge or colleague, of the validity of your argument. It's not enough to understand the material; you also need to understand your audience's needs and expectations. Focusing on logical structure, relatable examples, and clear reasoning will make your writing reader-centric. Avoid unnecessary jargon and use plain English (see the section on clarity and precision). Every word should serve a purpose: to inform, argue, or persuade.

5. Don't Quote too Much

Over-quoting sources is a clear indication of a novice legal writer. Remember, the goal is to improve your argument, not overshadow it with someone else's words. Use quotes when a court's wording is key to your analysis, but be judicious. Each quote should serve a clear purpose and directly support your point. It's often better to paraphrase to fit a court's wording to your analysis or when weaving together various sources.

6. The Revision Process

Students typically think of sentence structure and clarity when it comes to the revision process. However, proofreading legal writing requires a lot of rewriting. No matter how diligent your research and planning process, your first draft will likely have logical gaps and your arguments will benefit from a little reorganization.

After hours of reading, research, and writing, step away. Some distance will give you a fresh perspective. When you return, focus on the following:

     Clarity and Conciseness — Eliminate unnecessary jargon. Make sure every word has contributed to your argument to earn its place. Your sentences should be crisp and to the point.

     Logical Flow — Analyze how your argument progresses logically. Each paragraph should lead smoothly into the next. Put yourself in the shoes of the reader. How will your argument play out in their mind? What questions will they ask? Have you answered them?

     Consistency — Verify that you've used terms, names, and facts consistently.

     Fact-checking — Double-check all references, quotations, and legal citations.

Revision is an iterative process. Plan to go through several rounds of self-editing. With each iteration, you'll get closer to drafting a clear, compelling, and well-structured argument. Embrace this process. Your final piece is more than a collection of facts and arguments. It's a polished and persuasive piece of legal writing.

7. Be Prepared for Feedback

Not all feedback in law school will be positive, and negative feedback can be difficult to receive. You've worked hard toward perfecting your draft, and it may feel like others just “don't get it”. However, feedback from professors, peers, or supervisors is invaluable to cultivating your legal writing skills and polishing your draft into a truly professional piece of writing.

A law professor providing detailed feedback to a female law student on her legal writing assignment in a university setting.

Understand that some feedback will be objective (e.g., citation errors), while other feedback will be more subjective (e.g., persuasive style). Stay open. Remember that, in the end, writing is about communicating with others. Every piece of feedback helps you better understand how others interact with your style and logic. Contextualize your feedback by considering the source and use this to calibrate your style and reorganize your logical flow.

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