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Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Legal Writing Tip: Writing of Briefs Should Be “Short But Dense”

 

By Leslie A. Gordon, BASF Bulletin Contributor


Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to writing legal briefs, you don’t have to write to the maximum number of pages allowed by the court. There, I said it.

It may seem counterintuitive, but writing short legal briefs is significantly harder than writing long ones. It requires you to focus, to drill down, to winnow. But a concise brief might also be the reason you win – and that’s what your clients pay you for.

Consider the audience for legal briefs: law clerks and judges who are underpaid and overburdened. Who wouldn’t appreciate a short, crisply written brief? Think Hemingway: stripped down, bare bones. When I say short, I mean short but dense.

To achieve this, don’t dilute content with unnecessary (very) or redundant (month of July) words. Every word should be vigorous and command the precious space it takes up.

At the sentence level, shoot for simple, declarative sentences, with each sentence having just one job.

Most of the time, aim for around 20 words per sentence, but also vary length to keep your reader’s interest.

When evaluating paragraphs, read each draft with an eye for what to leave out. Boil it down, keep it simple. Include minimal facts. For example, ditch any date that isn’t necessary, especially procedural dates that are inessential to substantive points.

Similarly, cut any argument that isn’t strictly necessary. By throwing everything – including weaker arguments – against the wall to see what sticks, you’re actually dilut-ing your message. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Strike for the jugular and let the rest go.”

Similarly, keep headings short. As with block quotations, the longer the heading, the less likely it’ll actually be read.

If your substantive argument is strong, a short brief will always work in your favor. This is harder than it sounds and absolutely worth the effort.


 

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 leslie.gordon@stanfordalumni.org.

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