Effective Legal Writing by Professor Douglas Abrams is a comprehensive book on legal writing that is a must-read for students and practitioners who are looking to master legal writing. He has succeeded in compiling a road map to effective legal writing for readers from all walks of the legal world. The book should be on every lawyer’s bookshelf.
Abrams’ book contains chapters on the fundamentals of good writing: i.e., conciseness, precision, simplicity, and clarity. These four prongs of effective legal writing are reviewed in all leading textbooks and articles on writing. Thoughtfully, Abrams quotes George Orwell in Chapter 6 on “Breaking the Rules,” who recognized that “the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them.”
He continues: “For years, I have taught students that legal writers should be the masters of language, and not its prisoners.” Well said. Strunk and White in their landmark work similarly opined, “the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric.” Abrams then offers examples of situations where traditional writing rules are meant to be broken.
The book is chock full of interesting and outstanding quotes on how to write well—from the lesser known to the famous. The quotes and references alone are worth the price of admission.
It includes sections that are useful for law students who are first learning the craft of legal writing, as well as those who have long been trying to improve their writing skills. “We are all apprentices,” Abrams intones. The major sections of the book include: Foundations; Researching; Writing, Editing; Dismantling Barriers; and Versatility. In a section entitled “Perfect First Drafts Don’t Exist,” Abrams observes that there is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting. And there is no such thing as good legal writing, only good legal rewriting. If you can wrap your head around these two little truisms, you will become an accomplished legal writer.
The first 50 pages of the book deserve a detailed review. Abrams begins with the need for legal writing to be couched in “plain English” and discusses the importance of writing for an audience of non-lawyers. Both complexities and simplicities are rewarded in legal writing; however, there is an obvious tension between the complexities of the law and the simplicity of understanding the law. “Out of intense complexities,” Sir Winston Churchill observed, “intense simplicities emerge.” Abrams summarizes this tension by noting: “Law may not always prove as complex as it first appears, and disciplined drafters adept at plain English can often dismantle barriers that legalese would impose.”
Abrams then describes how the virtues of plain English remain as central today as they were in the 16th century, when British King Edward VI urged lawmakers to make statutes “more plain and short,” so that the citizenry could better understand them. Extracurricular writing about law or public policy offers one way for lawyers to fulfill an ethical obligation embraced in the ABA Rules of Professional Conduct to perform as “public citizens” who “further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system.” As former California Chief Justice Roger J. Traynor observed, writing is “thinking at its hardest.”
Abrams’ book also contains a host of advice for avoiding common mistakes that plague legal writing. These include typographical error, grammatical mistakes, over-use of footnotes and use of technical jargon. As Abrams counsels, lawyers should be careful to avoid the sort of writing mistakes that detract from the true meaning and flow of the words.
The last two chapters of the book address the responsibility and the rewards of extracurricular writing, including legal blogs, social media, op-eds, both national and regional papers and law reviews. Lawyers writing on editorial pages, blogs, or other public forums give life to the title of David Brinkley’s memoir, Everyone Is Entitled to My Opinion. In the end, a lawyer’s extracurricular writing demands “graceful expression” because no one else has to read it.
Abrams has spent the bulk of his career writing about and teaching legal writing. His book is a composite of more than 40 years of experience, wisdom, and research. It is a comprehensive guide to effective legal writing. It is well worth reading.