Effective legal writers avoid block quotations and quote supporting authorities sparingly. They do not create their briefs by stringing together a list of long quotes. Instead, they make the arguments and points in their own words—blending the heart of a quote into their own text, or clearly and concisely summarizing or paraphrasing the supporting material.
They do this for a number of reasons:
- Judges, clerks, and other readers tire quickly of the dense text in block quotations and tend to skim these passages or skip them entirely (For this reason, never rely on a block quotation to make the point; quotes should be used only to buttress or illustrate one you have made yourself);
- Chunks of quotations disrupt the flow of the writing and lessen the coherence of the arguments;
- Over-reliance on others’ words suggests a laziness or lack of confidence on the part of the writer that undermines the authority of his own voice.
Quote “lightly,” as legal writing expert Bryan Garner advises, “enough to show that you’re accurately conveying the legal rules and caselaw”.
When handling quotations, remember these three words: summarize, paraphrase, and blend.
When you blend the heart of a quotation into your own sentence or sentences, “your prose will sound better and more natural” than if you drop a block quote onto the page without any introduction. That way, you will “own” the quotation, as Garner puts it.
Here’s an example of a novice handling of a quote (courtesy of Garner):
Rule 1015 of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy states as follows: “Prior to entering an order the court shall give consideration to protecting creditors of different estates against potential conflicts of interest.” Fed. R. Bankr. P. 1015.
In contrast, here the writer “owns” the quote:
Before a court orders joint administration of bankruptcy estates, the court must “give consideration to protecting creditors of different estates against potential conflicts of interest.” Fed. R. Bankr. P. 1015.
If you must use a block quote, keep it to fewer than 50 words. So says Mark Herrmann, author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (2006). If, for some reason, you must include, say, a 100-word quotation, quote 49 words, then throw in a sentence or two of your own, such as, “The court went on to say that…”. Then insert the other 49 words of the quotation. (Surely, you can omit at least two words of the quote.)
Herrmann says that breaking up a long quote in this manner “will trick the judge into reading the quotation.”
Make sure to omit the transitional words in the source quote that will not make sense in a new context. Replace them with ellipsis dots if necessary, or even better, start the quote after the problematic transitional word or words.
Note how the word, “alternatively,” has no place and creates a distraction in the following piece of text (again, courtesy of Garner):
The threat of poaching is a major incentive for companies to enforce noncompete agreements, as Edward H. Pappas has noted: “Alternatively, noncompete enforcement may be particularly critical because the employee’s new employer has been raiding the client company.”
Here’s the improved version:
Poaching creates a major incentive for companies to enforce noncompete agreements. Edward H. Pappas has noted that “noncompete enforcement may be particularly critical because the employee’s new employer has been raiding the client company.”
In sum, include only those quotations that are essential to the argument, and err on the side of brevity when quoting a source.
About the author:
Attorney Savannah Blackwell is a former news reporter who covered government and politics for more than a decade, mostly in San Francisco. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SavannahBinSF