Last week on Twitter, several posts linking to interviews with the author of a new legal writing book grabbed my attention.*
I never before heard of Ross Guberman, but because of my keen interest in legal writing, particularly appellate brief writing, I began to investigate. His glowing comments about Chief Justice John Roberts as a writer and a description of his book as “writing-nerd nirvana” sealed my interest.
Ross Guberman is a legal writing consultant whose company, Legal Writing Pro, offers seminars, workshops and other programs to lawyers and judges on legal writing and drafting. While acknowledging exceptions exist, he believes that legal writing has gotten worse over the years, pointing to an “era of cutting and pasting” as a cause.
“Literary novels and poetry require talent,” he says. “But persuasive writing can be taught, as long as the writer has a working command over sentence structure and a good ear for language.” Guberman admits the skill is not easily learned but states that one “can go line-by-line, heading-by-heading, example-by-example and explain what’s happening in even the most famous briefs by the most famous advocates.”
Oxford University Press released his new book, Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates, which has been described as a compilation of 50 distinct writing techniques, each demonstrated through recent, short, diverse and interesting examples from top lawyers’ motions and briefs in high-profile cases. Guberman calls his book a one-on-one conversation with a personal touch that can be both read cover to cover and used as a handy reference book. He includes useful information and offers new takes on familiar challenges to assist lawyers write more effectively.
Guberman tells lawyers how to be better writers. He recommends studying the fresh and evocative writing of non-lawyers, such as those in Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The Economist, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, while focusing on transitions, word choice, parallelism and sentence structure variety.
He encourages lawyers to use the readability statistics tool and challenges them to strive for a Flesch Reading Ease score of 40 or higher. He suggests this can be achieved by shortening some sentences, breaking down long paragraphs, replacing long words with short ones and changing the passive voice to the active voice.
“In an ideal world, I supposed that style wouldn’t or shouldn’t matter. But in the real world, it most certainly does. Most lawyers overestimate how much time and effort that judges and even clerks can devote to deciphering the many briefs that cross their desks each week. So here’s what judges will tell you off the record: although they may not assess style consciously, when the word choice is precise and evocative, the sentences are vivid and varied, and the writer shows some personality or pizzazz, the arguments become all that much easier to understand—and to accept.”
My Bottom Line: Any time someone attempts to provide techniques or a formula for an aspect of law practice that can be learned, applied and then taught, I am pleased. Much more needs to be said, so I am looking forward to receiving my own copy of Point Made and will happily provide a review soon after.