Custom-Fit Legal Writing

Learn practical tips for adapting legal documents to the specific needs and preferences of various audiences, emphasizing the importance of audience analysis and effective communication in legal writing.
  • Joe Regalia
How can you tailor your legal documents to suit different audiences? There are several ways.
Learn as much as you can about your readers and what they want.
If it’s a judge, read their past decisions. Read the briefs or motions written by attorneys who frequently win (the major legal research companies all offer these analytics now). Ask around for insights from other folks who have practiced before them.
Look for any of the audience factors below—things like tone, legal approach, approach to policy, layout, and anything else you can glean.
If your reader is another attorney you work with, gathering this information is often easier: just ask other attorneys who regularly work with them. Or better yet, ask the attorney directly. But critically: don’t rely on what people tell you; ask for writing samples. People may have all sorts of perspectives about someone’s preferences. Better to go right to the source.
For that matter, when working with lawyers, ask lots of questions about what is expected so you can match your document to their expectations.
  • What will your reader do with this information?
  • How much time should you spend? How much information do they want?
  • When do they want it by?
  • What, exactly, are the questions you should answer?
  • Are there any helpful places to start?
Change up your tone (slightly) to target your audience.
Nearly all legal writing should stick to the style and fluency moves in this book. Clear writing is clear writing. The semi-conversational tone you achieve with moves like fresh words and vibrant verbs will engage pretty much every reader.
That said, the final product should look different depending on who it's going to be. If you are writing for a client, the fluency tools we explore in this section will be extra critical. A client not only knows you less and will judge you more based on your writing skill, but they may be less equipped to process the complex legal and factual points you are throwing down. So more context, more defined terms, more simple writing. Whether you are writing for a client or a judge, you need extra rounds of editing and polish.
Also, if you read your audience’s work and notice writing preferences, consider adopting them as a one-off just for them. Even if it’s not always a fluency best practice for others at large. That’s because the more you write like your reader, according to many studies—the more they are likely to agree with you. I would never suggest that you ignore what your reader does or prefers. If your reader is used to a convention (regardless of whether we might question its usefulness and persuasiveness with the average reader)—that convention may end up being more fluent for them in particular.
So ask, does your reader like:
  • Meaty headings or short ones?
  • Traditional transitions (moreover and furthermore)?
  • Deep introductions?
  • Extra short sentences or paragraphs? (If not, they may be in the old-school camp that these are no-nos).
  • Authority/legal background in the fact sections?
  • Structural layout and white space?
  • Fresh and vivid words? Other writing style quirks?
  • Adherence to outdated grammar rules like never splitting an infinitive or starting sentences with conjunctions?
  • Policy-forward discussion?
  • Types of policy—slippery slope, ideological, etc.?
  • Lengthy discussions of rules and authority?
  • Approaches to interpreting case law? (like full fact-to-fact exposition for every important case?)
  • Textual interpretation—textualism? Results-oriented?
  • Legislative history?
  • Formal tone? Neutral? Pay particular attention to old-school legalese like “such as” and “furthermore.”
  • Legalese: Latin phrases, long formalisms at the start of the motion, etc.
  • Naming and definition conventions (ugh, acronyms).
  • Titles of documents?
Literally, anything else you notice in their writing!
Think about what arguments will be most persuasive to your audience—and use all your highlighting tools to call them out.
Are there policies, types of cases, particular judges or courts your reader likes, or particular arguments they prefer—if so, lead with and emphasize those.
Consider other audience factors and decide whether you can do anything else to make your writing more fluent or useable.
Consider how you can make key documents and authorities easily accessible to your reader.
If it’s a trial judge, try to match your structure and citation style to theirs so that the judge and clerks can plug and play your writing into the order.
If the reader is an attorney, consider attaching useful documents and cases to the email or as an appendix.
Additionally, if you are writing for an attorney and know that the partner will forward your research to a client, consider including soundbites so the partner can easily copy and paste them into their email. If your partner is using your document as talking points.
Joe Regalia
Write.law co-founder Joe Regalia combines his experience as both practitioner and professor to create exciting new ways to teach legal skills.  Learn more about Joe

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