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Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Legal Writing Tip: Strong Starts


By Leslie A. Gordon BASF Bulletin Contributor

Starting strong, particularly in briefs, is critical. Legal writing expert Bryan Garner says you’ve got 90 seconds to make your point – including essential facts, framing the issues and requesting action. A strong start has another subtle but no less important effect: it makes a good impression.

Yet lawyers use formulaic beginnings weighed down with tedious “Comes now” recitations and first sentences that unnecessarily repeat party names and the document’s title. Ever wondered why, when you appear for oral argument, it seems the judge hasn’t even read your papers? Busy law clerks and judges may avoid briefs that are uninteresting from the outset.

Start strong by succinctly telling the reader what you want. Instead of the dry traditional openers, try this:
Defendant William David moves for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s retaliation claim for two reasons:

  • The plaintiff was terminated for legitimate business reasons; namely, misuse of the company credit card.
  • The plaintiff has failed to pursue administrative remedies.

(You’re not going to lose the motion because you use bullet points – I promise!)

Engage your reader early by applying story narrative techniques even if you’re litigating a seemingly boring dispute between two inhuman corporations – somewhere there’s a story readers can relate to.

For example, like a fiction writer or journalist, alternate short and long sentences.

“It was necessary, then, to find him and render him mortal again, reduce him to mere humanity – not just as a matter of justice but as a matter of self-defense. The raid took him down to size.” (Time Magazine 5/20/11)

Similarly, in conveying chronology, ditch dates in favor of story words.

“At a meeting three days earlier, Obama had heard his options summarized…” (Time Magazine 5/20/11)
Strong starts get readers quickly understanding and interested and, as a result, your brief will stand out in the stack.

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A former lawyer, Leslie A. Gordon is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco.

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