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Bar Association of San Francisco Member Benefits: Publications

Legal Writing Tip: Know Your Audience


By Leslie A. Gordon, BASF Bulletin Contributor


Similar to chess or sports, writing involves strategy. An effective strategy should be based, at least in
part, on knowing your audience and your purpose.

Know Your Audience

Before hitting that first computer key, focus on the reader. Ask yourself: What does the audience need? What is important to the reader? What is the reader unlikely to care about? What impression do you want your writing to leave with the audience?

Review drafts with the reader’s knowledge in mind. What does the reader know? How much needs explaining? Should your writing be formal or informal; concise or detailed; technical or general?
Consider format and organization too. Is your reader busy? If so, would the audience appreciate bullet points? Or is it your reader’s job to conduct further research (such as in the case of a court staff attorney) so thorough footnotes would be preferred?

Know Your Purpose

Are you trying to inform, such as with a client memo or email? Or persuade, as with a brief? Are you seeking to sell (in a potential-client package) or establish rapport (perhaps with opposing counsel)?
Knowing your purpose will not only suggest filters of the general topic, but should also dictate style and tone. For example, your writing style could be robotic (“pursuant to your request”), which is appropriate in some cases, or it could be natural (in which case you may use contractions like “don’t”).

Meanwhile, the tone you’re going for will determine precise choices among lively words and strong verbs. For instance, your tone could be angry, conciliatory, sympathetic, urgent or argumentative.

Analyzing your audience and your purpose before you write will make the whole process easier, simplifying decisions as you pound out a draft and informing your detailed edits.

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

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