legal writing: an overview
In many legal settings specialized forms of written communication are required. In many others, writing is the medium in which a lawyer must express their analysis of an issue and seek to persuade others on their clients' behalf. Any legal document must be concise, clear, and conform to the objective standards that have evolved in the legal profession.
There are generally two types of legal writing. The first type requires a balanced analysis of a legal problem or issue. Examples of the first type are inter-office memoranda and letters to clients. To be effective in this form of writing, the lawyer must be sensitive to the needs, level of interest and background of the parties to whom it is addressed. A memorandum to a partner in the same firm that details definitions of basic legal concepts would be inefficient and an annoyance. In contrast, their absence from a letter to a client with no legal background could serve to confuse and complicate a simple situation.
The second type of legal writing is persuasive. Examples of this type are appellate briefs and negotiation letters written on a clients behalf. The lawyer must persuade his or her audience without provoking a hostile response through disrespect or by wasting the recipient's time with unnecessary information. In presenting documents to a court or administrative agency he or she must conform to the required document style.
The drafting of legal documents, such as contracts and wills, is yet another type of legal writing. Guides are available to aid a lawyer in preparing the documents but a unique application of the "form" to the facts of the situation is often required. Poor drafting can lead to unnecessary litigation and otherwise injure the interests of a client.
The legal profession has its own unique system of citation. While it serves to provide the experienced reader with enough information to evaluate and retrieve the cited authorities, it may, at first, seem daunting to the lay reader. Court rules generally specify the citation format required of all memoranda or briefs filed with the court. These rules have not kept up with the changing technology of legal research. Within recent years, online and disk-based law collections have become primary research tools for many lawyers and judges. Because of these changes, there has been growing pressure on those ultimately responsible for citation norms, namely the courts, to establish new rules that no longer presuppose thata publisher's print volume (created over a year after a decision is handed down) is the key reference. (See the reports of the Wisconsin Bar and the AALL.) Several jurisdictions have responded and many more are sure to follow.