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“Write well. Your career depends on it.” Those words are etched all around our Writing Resource Center offices at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago. The mantra is so simple it’s almost forgettable, especially to those of us long removed from the halls of legal learning and out in a world of constant deadlines, expectations and strife.
It’s those of us far removed from everyday reminders that arguably need to practice our legal writing skills the most. As legal writing master Bryan A. Garner reminds us, the mindset that “you shouldn’t fuss about your writing — that good enough is good enough” is a costly one. As Garner puts it, if your legal writing is “artless and sloppy, [your audience] may assume your thinking is the same,” and no lawyer can afford that inference.
This post begins a series of #LegalWritingReminders that I hope will help everyday practitioners improve their written work little by little. Professor and legal writing expert Ian Gallacher notes that, just like professional violinists, professional writers (which includes all lawyers) should spend some time each day honing their technical skills. This series will include rules, optional techniques and simple suggestions to remind us that strong writing makes us better lawyers. Practice makes perfect, so let’s get started!
The woman drove the car.
The car was driven by the woman.
The first sentence above is in active voice and the one below it is in passive voice. Active voice means that the subject or actor begins the sequence, followed by the verb or action, followed by the object or the thing acted upon. Passive voice flips that order around (or eliminates the subject altogether). Notice immediately the difference in sentence length. In a profession consumed with efficiency, why in the world would you make a reader suffer through more words than necessary to say the same thing? Judges and clerks hate that. Relatedly, imagine a more extreme passive example wherein the reader might have to wait a full line of text (or more) to realize the subject or actor of the sentence.
The defendant’s own story was corroborated, after several long hours of interrogation, surveillance and re-interrogation, and despite his own inability to describe important details of the night of the incident, by the defendant’s (drum roll, please!) sister.
Painful at most, and frustrating at least.
For whatever reason, passive voice has taken hold as a go-to “space filler,” and lawyers slip into it all the time. Don’t make your reader wait for the most important part of the sentence. Avoid passive voice 99.9 percent of the time in your legal writing. Your briefs and memos will be shorter, and your readers will be happier.
Writers may use passive voice as a persuasive technique to mindfully accomplish burying, obscuring, or softening certain information.
Also, note that “voice” has nothing to do with “tense.” Past, present, and future tense can all exist within active or passive voice.
Pull out the last thing of substance you filed in court, and try to spot the first three instances of passive voice.
Full sentences get periods. Incomplete clauses do not. When explaining the contents of a citation, treat information in the parenthetical the same as you would a traditional sentence or clause.
Beginning a parenthetical with “holding” or “stating” or other similar introductory material makes the sentence incomplete so that the period inside the parenthetical is inappropriate. There are a few fixes:
Be sure to read “Get to the Point!” by Teddy Snyder for quick tips on clear communications.
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Take advantage of Find and Replace as part of the last once-over for that important letter, contract or brief.April 16, 2019 0 0 0