>> Why worry about legal writing?

Why worry about legal writing?

By Judge Mark P. Painter

Why should we strive for perfection, or at least competence, in our writing? Are writing skills important to lawyers? Yes – for many reasons: think of them as PPP.

Pride in the profession. We write for a living. Carpenters saw and nail. Pilots fly; painters paint; surgeons cut. Lawyers write – even litigators. Most cases settle and the litigator writes a contract (settlement agreement). Because writing is our job, we should strive to master at least the fundamentals of grammar, syntax (whatever that is), and style.

  • Precision. Leaving out a serial comma, misplacing a semicolon, or using the wrong word can change the meaning of our documents. Clients come to us for wills, contracts, and lawsuits. All are written, and they must be precise.

  • Paycheck (the bill). Many clients might not understand the legal nuances of the documents you send them. But educated clients, especially boomers – who are still mainly in power – will spot grammatical errors. The summary-judgment memo, trial brief, appellate brief, contract, agency filing, or whatever might cost more than a new car, and almost surely more than a boomer’s first house. If your document has grammatical errors, or the format is unattractive, it will seem less worthy of the charge. Your paycheck may come from your firm. But the client must first pay the bill for your work.

    A mystery

Some lawyers continue to put County, State, ss. on affidavits and other documents. Why? Does anyone even know what it signifies? Does it mean “sovereign state”? That wouldn’t make sense if English lawyers started it, which they did.

Bryan Garner, in book we all should keep on our desk, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (2nd Ed. 1995), solves the puzzle. People have suggested different origins: (1) an abbreviation for the word scilicet (to wit); (2) a representation of the gold letters hanging from the chain of the Lord Chief Justice. But Garner discovered that it’s “simply a flourish, deriving from the Year Books – an equivalent of the paragraph mark: ‘¶.‘” It was intended to set off each paragraph of a court record. But a formbook writer put it into a form, and we have mindlessly been repeating the error for nine hundred years. Oh well.

Spellcheck catches two lawyers

A recent brief told our court that an alleged car thief had gotten the car from a “dope feign named Greyhound.” Feign is a word, but not the one the attorney wanted, which was fiend. The other side copied the error, also referring to the “dope feign.” Then, reading the trial transcript, we noticed that the court reporter started it. That is the first time I’ve seen Spellcheck catch three people with one word.


I always show the readability scores for the column. Statistics for this column: 11 words per sentence, 2 percent passive voice, and grade level 7.8.


Mark Painter has served as a judge on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals for 11 years, after 13 years on the Hamilton County Municipal Court. Judge Painter is the author of The Legal Writer: 40 Rules for the Art of Legal Writing. It is available from http://books. lawyersweekly .com. Judge Painter has given dozens of seminars on legal writing. Contact him through his website, www.judge painter.org.