With an aristocratic drawl, Bryan Garner gently informed a group of Seattle-area legal professionals that they were trained to write poorly. In attendance at Garner’s writing seminar - in addition to civilian legal professionals - were 15 service members from Naval Legal Service Office Northwest. Indistinguishable in their civilian attire, attorneys and legalmen alike were excited to meet the legendary Garner, author of law school favorites The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, The Winning Brief: 100 Tips for Persuasive Briefing in Trial and Appellate Courts, and Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (a book he co-authored with Justice Antonin Scalia).
During the daylong seminar, Garner schooled attendees in the art of advanced legal writing and editing, humorously pointing out common grammatical errors. He brazenly lampooned traditional legal writing techniques and provided numerous examples of how economizing words can add clarity and make writing more interesting. We walked away eager to improve our work product and emboldened by Garner’s four tenets of legal writing: it must be correct, interesting, economical in word usage, and tailored to its reader.
“There are only two things that lawyers do,” said Garner, “speak persuasively and write persuasively.”
In the last few years, the Navy has gone to great lengths to ensure that legalmen can function effectively as paralegals. Legalman paralegals that have been afforded opportunities such as the Legalman Accession Course, the Legalman Paralegal Education Program (LPEP), and numerous other trainings should now be fully equipped to take on any task assigned. Legalmen are jacks-of-all-trades; we are called upon as subject matter experts in leadership and management, customs and traditions, rules and regulations, the law, and much more. But where do our writing skills rank?
Many legalmen - including myself - often place tasks requiring writing firmly on the back burner. Whether this tendency is caused by heavy workload, apprehension, or other issues, we need to overcome the obstacles that are standing in the way of practicing our writing. Accordingly, to legalmen around the world, I propose this solution: the next time you see an opportunity to practice your writing, take it. If there is a motion to write, a legal assistance letter to draft, or information to research and brief, take it on.
Practicing is the only way to improve your writing. Even if you are only responding to an e-mail, write a well-crafted, thoughtful response. If you don’t think your ability to write well is important, consider this. Unlike the attorneys we work for, we are not often called upon to speak persuasively. Therefore, I contend that we need to expend extra effort to write persuasively.