Five Ways to Leverage Details in Your Legal Writing
Legal writing doesn’t have to be dull and boring. Leverage your writing to create engaging legal documents that capture your reader’s attention and make your point.
We legal writers often struggle with the details. Many of us either fall into the camp of “list everything out and let the reader deal with it,” or we constantly struggle over which details to include—and how to include them.
If you strive to be an excellent legal writer, you should fall into the second camp. How many details you share about a point, the order of those details, how often you repeat them, and whether you quickly gloss over details or plunge into them—all profoundly impact your reader’s perceptions.
You have a few core tools when managing your details. Each will help when drafting fact sections, introductions, summaries–and when sharing details about the law or a factual story.
1. Detail Depth
There’s a direct link between quantity and perception. That is: The more details you share about an event or point, the more readers will think it matters and focus on it. That may seem simple, but most legal writers forget that when they slow readers down and share more details, readers will naturally pay more attention to that point and get invested. But like most writing tools, you need to tread with care. If you share too many details about too many things, your writing is quickly bogged down and readers won’t know what matters in the morass. If you share too many details about unhelpful things, you might unwittingly give power to points you’d prefer not to.
For example, when sharing the details about a case’s procedural posture, you have several choices to make about how much to include. Share every filing and back-and-forth between the parties? Quickly summarize in a couple of sentences the highlights? Or simply share the ultimate result? Just about every topic is the same: You have to share something, but whether to quickly summarize or dive into extensive recitation of details is usually up to you.
Say you need to relay to readers that a fight broke out at a prison on June 1st and that one person, the defendant, was seriously injured. Those are the legally-relevant details you must include for the analysis to make sense. You have three options.
First, you can summarize those salient details as quickly as possible in a single sentence:
Second, you can share a few additional details to add color and emphasize the event, but still keep it to a few short sentences.
Third, you can immerse your readers in the event fully, adding extensive details to set the scene and control the pacing. This is how lawyers in the real case described the fight:
In this next snippet, the specific number of documents didn’t matter. Nor did the particular formats. So this federal judge, Judge Dorsey, doesn’t drown you in exact math and detail. Instead, she opts for a quick summary so she could spend more time on the details she cares about.
Which of the three options you use depends entirely on the point you are trying to make. If you want readers to fully experience an event, or fully understand the nuances of a point, go deep with the details. Start with the strictly needed, and then expand based on your goals. If you want folks to feel what a victim felt, introduce a character favorably and try to recreate the fear and pacing. If you want a reader to see how complicated a statute is, give lots of examples of all the switchbacks in each provision. If you don’t want readers spending much time thinking about a point, quickly summarize what you must and move on to what matters.
But keep in mind that readers can only handle depth so often. You can only go really deep for one or two points in most documents, lest readers get bogged down.
2. Primacy, Recency, and Internment
Another detail tool is location: Where will you put the good and the bad? This one is easier. Put the details you want readers to remember in the beginning and ending of your document, your sections, and your paragraphs. Bury what you don’t want readers focusing on in the middles (also called internment).
The truth is, we remember what comes first, and we remember a final point or takeaway. The details in the middle are the hardest to engage with, the easiest to skim over, and it’s absolutely where you should put the least important things.
Say you want readers to pay attention to the date the plaintiff filed a motion, and you want them to quickly move past the detail that the plaintiff failed to include a certification. You can’t leave out the bad detail—that would only draw more attention to it. And after all, decision-makers have to deal with everything. But you can deemphasize it with internment:
Notice how this lawyer buried the problematic fact in the middle, with the strongest facts laid out in the beginning and end of the paragraph. Sometimes this tactic is called haloing, and it works.
Keep in mind that the more you repeat a key detail, the better it will stick for readers. On the other hand, you must repeat smartly and strategically—because repeating just to repeat will quickly annoy readers.
How do you pull off helpful repetition? In a few ways.
First, there are a few places that readers always expect things to be repeated—make sure all of your key points stand out in each of these places of emphasis. Introductions, headings, and conclusions are the most common places that readers know you will be repeating things and won’t get distracted or annoyed.
Second, you can briefly remind readers of key information whenever it’s been a while since you covered it and it will be genuinely helpful to understand your points.
In the below example, the author had just finished a dense, multi-page journey through complex case law. They used this opportunity to quickly recap (and repeat) for readers the key takeaways:
In this example, Paul Clement repeats a point for readers in simple terms that’s easy to understand—in other words, adding value for readers and not just repeating to repeat:
You can control how your details hit readers by using style tools. Using vivid verbs, engaging descriptors, and other rhetorical style tools can highlight certain details so they stand out from the noise. We won’t go through all hundreds of style tools at your disposal, but keep in mind that using better style for important details will emphasize them.
Finally, there’s a lot of power in which specifics you choose to include for readers. You will often have a menu of facts or details you can include to make a point—that’s why it’s usually easy to offer more details to focus in on key points or events. But when choosing which details to include, tread with care. The right detail can stick with readers. But so can the wrong one.
So choose your details purposefully. Consider what impact each will have on readers. You always have the option of paraphrasing, summarizing, or choosing another detail that conveys a similar point.
For example, if you want to convey the point that a house was very valuable to your client, what details might you share? You could share the home’s value. You could share details about family gatherings at the home. You could share the custom work your client did to the home. It all depends on your goals: What will get readers in the best headspace?
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