Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Your Legal Writing Process

Sure, if you had years to write your legal documents (like other types of writers do), your documents would all be great. But we legal writers don’t have years to write documents. We have just weeks. Or days. Or even hours. 

Because you want your legal writing to be excellent—but are often constrained by factors like time—you should take a note from other industries and professionals that need to balance quality and limited resources.

Improve your process. 

Today, it's all about process improvement: Tweaking the steps used to produce the product so that the results are consistently great. If you’ve heard of lean, sigma, or design thinking, this is a lot of what it's about. Breaking down a process into steps—and regularly improving them to get better and better results. 

Applying process improvement to your own writing isn’t as hard as it sounds. All you need to do is figure out the steps you take to complete your writing projects. Improve the heck out of those steps. Then regularly revisit and keep improving your process, so you never stop getting better. 

To get started, you’ll need to invest some time into figuring out what your current writing process is, so that you have something to improve. If you aren’t aware of what you’re doing, it’s hard to start getting better at it. 

And if you are on the fence, let me tell you: You need a process and a plan for improving it. Because it’s easy to forget that a lot of legal writing is functional. Checking citation formatting. Checking that citations are actually citing to the right things. Labeling things you’re citing correctly. Even steps like citing to the right case: Is it in your jurisdiction? Are there things in that case that might hurt your client? Is it still good law? Is it a published decision? Have you checked with the client to see how they want to be referred to in your document? Depending on your practice, this list can span pages of things to check for—before you even get to the document’s substance and the words you put on the page. 

So sit down and figure out your existing process. Record all the steps you take from the beginning of a writing project to the finish: Gathering supporting materials, researching the law, researching the facts, figuring out what you want to say and outlining your message, drafting your document, editing it, and then using it. And you’ll need to do this for any regular writing projects you do, because the process for preparing a summary judgment motion is probably different from your process for drafting a contract. 

Once you have the steps down, you can start to identify the parts of your process that are taking forever or creating roadblocks. What steps do you dread? What steps are slowing you down? Usually, you don’t need to waste time improving steps that aren’t creating problems. You have only so much time. So focus on what matters.  

Then you can start exploring improvements for your steps. Are there tech tools that may help automate some annoying repetitive tasks, like citation work? Are there steps you should be delegating to others, or having another pair of eyes on, at least? Are there ways you can better organize your templates or materials to use them in the future? On and on: There are tons of ways to make your writing process more enjoyable, more effective, and more efficient. 

To bring all this together, most folks benefit from a checklist. Not a boring old-school checklist. But a process flow: What are all the major things you want to do, and check, before your writing goes out the door? And this includes not only the functional things (like making sure you include the proper exhibits and check their labels), but also your writing substance and style. 

When it comes to editing your writing, make sure to break it up into chunks, or phases. No one can keep all the different substance and style points in their head at the same time. Our brains are easy to distract. So take four or five things, at most, at a time—and edit for those with purpose. 

Let’s end with a quick example. Say you write a lot of summary judgment motions. You realize that the factual citations to “undisputed facts” take an incredible amount of time, and you often end up with errors even after checking them several times. Most folks would just keep doing it the same way. But what if there were a better option?

It turns out that there are some excellent technology tools that will live-link all your supporting documents to your factual citations in your brief. When you move a citation around in your document, or when you move the supporting exhibits around: the tool automatically updates all the citations in your document. Sounds like that would help a lot!

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