Post written by Lindsey Blanchard
As a professor of lawyering skills, one of the questions I am asked most frequently by my students and colleagues is, “What do you think is the most important attribute of good legal writing?” My answer used to be that there is not just one quality that defines “good” legal writing. Good legal writing must be well-organized and accurate, thorough yet concise, logical and well-reasoned, and engaging but not dramatic. It must be grammatically correct and supported by citations to relevant authorities, and it must have a clear sense of audience and purpose. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is one most important attribute of good legal writing: clarity.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “clarity” as “the quality of being easily understood.” Certainly, there can be no more important attribute of a piece of legal writing than that it is easily understood by its intended audience. If a brief submitted to a court cannot be easily understood by the law clerks and judges who read it, not only is the attorney less likely to get what she wants, but the judges may think that the attorney does not know what she wants or that her client is not entitled to the relief sought. If an associate drafts a memo for a partner that the partner cannot decipher, the associate is less likely to get more work from that partner. Worse yet, if the associate drafts a memo that the partner misunderstands, the client might receive faulty advice.
So, what gives legal writing the quality of being easily understood? Logical organization, thorough analysis, brevity, a sense of purpose, correct grammar and punctuation, and awareness of the intended audience are all necessary qualities. On the flip side, legal writing that is not well-organized and complete, that rambles or is illogical, or that has no obvious point, will not be easily understood. In other words, “clarity” really just sums up the many attributes of good legal writing mentioned above.
To some extent, then, “clarity” probably isn’t a fair answer to the question, “What do you think is the most important attribute of good legal writing?” But, I have not found another word that more accurately describes the quality that is essential to all “good” legal writing. The real estate industry describes the most important considerations in evaluating a piece of property as: “Location! Location! Location!” Well, “Clarity! Clarity! Clarity!” is my new motto for describing the most important considerations in evaluating a piece of legal writing.