Teresa Godwin Phelps, Writing Strategies for Practicing Attorneys, 23 Gonz. L. Rev. 155 (1987)
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Do, as a concession to my poor wits, Lord Darlington, just explain to me
what you really mean.
I think I had better not, Duchess. Nowadays to be intelligible is to be
Lady Windermere’s Fan
It is tempting to begin this article with a lengthy litany of published complaints about the inscrutability and unintelligibility of lawyers’ writing; indeed it would be easy to do so. I prefer, though, to assume that my audience consists of those who wearily and unwillingly wear the mantle of unintelligibility. Unlike Lord Darlington, most attorneys would gladly shed this reputation in exchange for the ability to write more clearly and efficiently; they do indeed want to be able to “explain . . . what [they] really mean.
Law is, as William Prosser wrote, “one of the principle literary professions. One might hazard the supposition that the average lawyer in the course of a lifetime does more writing than a novelist.” Despite this, few lawyers have received writing instruction beyond a freshman English composition course (that traditionally focuses on bibliography skills) and perhaps a legal writing and research course in the first year of law school. Indeed, common wisdom has it that if one has not learned to write by law school, it is too late. This article challenges that common wisdom and submits that practicing lawyers not only want to improve their writing, but also can. It first categorizes, according to principles of rhetoric, the kind of writing lawyers do, and then suggests a way of thinking about and doing writing that can improve legal prose….