One of the side benefits of my job is that every now and then, for reasons I can’t begin to understand, legal-writing books just show up in the mail. Sometimes they come to me, and sometimes they go to our librarian. Either way, I am compelled to drop everything I’m doing to read them immediately.
This happened again the other day. A little book called The Seven Deadly Sins of Legal Writing by Theodore Blumberg showed up in the mail. And when I say little, I mean tiny: it’s 34 pages long (with some practice exercises appended).
I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know who Theodore Blumberg is . . . but I like him.
His book is terrific. I’m not going to give you all seven of Blumberg’ sins; that wouldn’t be fair. Instead, I will share three tips and observations from the book that resonated with me, and leave it to you to decide whether it’s worth the investment ($7.95 on Amazon) to get all of the seven deadlies.
- Blumberg’s Rule of Infliction. Judges read briefs because they have to. They feel about briefs the way that students feel about homework–basically, that briefs them away from the rest of their life. As a result, a brief that’s 10 pages long will be received more favorably–and read more carefully–than one that’s three times as long. So everything we write should be as tight as possible. According to Blumberg and his sources, most first drafts can be cut in half without losing any meaning. He encourages multiple rounds of edits to eliminate needless words. I’m going to take him up on that advice. Having recently gone back to review some of my briefs to prepare for a few arguments, I’ve been embarrassed at how flabby sections of them were.
- Adverbs insult your reader’s intelligence. They basically tell the reader how to react to your statement. If your writing’s sound, then your reader’s already there and doesn’t need (or appreciate) the help. Adverbs also rob your writing of force by giving away the punchline of every sentence. For example, the surest way to undermine a sentence about something tragic is to start out with the word, “tragically.” At the same time, you can use an adverb to temper the force of a verbal blow: A products-liability defendant might write something like, “Tragically, the infant plaintiff was crippled in the resulting collision.” (Also note how the use of the passive voice deflects responsibility.)
- Lawyers used to be paid by the word. Really. At least according to Adam Smith, who’s never been wrong about anything. As Blumberg puts it: “Now I suspect that our fondness for pleonasm and verbosity is a holdover. Whatever the origin, it’s a habit to be shaken.”
Did you have to look up “pleonasm”? I did. I’m not proud.
Seven Deadly Sins is beautifully written. You can read it in about the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, and it costs less than a decent cocktail. I can’t imagine a lawyer not liking this book.