back to Screen-Friendly page

Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Legal Writing Tip: Paraphrase Your Way to a Powerful Brief


By Leslie A. Gordon, BASF Bulletin Contributor

Most legal documents – briefs, memos, letters – are littered with direct quotes. But reading a string of quotations can be tedious and disrupt the flow of an otherwise well-written argument. Worse, most readers confess to skimming or even skipping block quotations. And, I’m sure, they secretly believe quote-reliant writers are just plain lazy.

.Paraphrasing, on the other hand, is an effective way to legitimately borrow from a source without risking plagiarism. Original sources should back up your points rather than make your arguments for you, and paraphrasing allows you to use your own language, style, tone and organizational structure. Providing context, meaning and emphasis, paraphrasing also allows you to add complexity and depth in supporting your position. With paraphrasing, you still attribute credit to the source, but you preserve flow for the reader. You can still place direct quotes around key terms or phrases, if necessary. Paraphrasing can also be a great way to highlight holes in your opponent’s argument without giving a direct quote from an opposing source any precious real estate in your document.


Paraphrase whenever the original quote is wordy, unclear or otherwise lacks power. Importantly, don’t just replace certain words with synonyms and maintain the structure of the original. Rather, use your own words to convey the central point and simply name the original source. The idea is to not only borrow the idea but to actually make it more powerful.

However, when the wording is as important as the meaning, stick with direct quotes. In that case, you’re sending a message to the reader that the exact language is critical – so make sure that it is. When you do decide to quote instead of paraphrase, don’t just paste in the quote without also weaving in a lead or follow-up following sentence explaining its importance.


A former lawyer, Leslie A. Gordon is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco. She is the author of Cheer: A Novel, which is available on Amazon. She can be reached at

Our partners at BASFAhern Insurance Brokerage