Level Up Your Law

Learn how to explain complex rules clearly and persuasively, using practical techniques to improve understanding and application.
  • Joe Regalia
You’ve turned your bland list of facts into a compelling story. You’re ready to guide readers to the final answers, which means explaining the rules that will take them there.
You will need to tread with care. Even seasoned legal writers struggle to lay out the governing rules persuasively. After all, rule sections are hard. They combine cryptic authorities, convoluted legal language, and the complicated interplay of cases, statutes, and policies.
That is why many legal writers take the easy path. They offer readers little more than a generic rule standard—often one copy-and-pasted from a court decision. These legal writers then sprinkle in some quotes and facts from precedent cases to add an air of authority. They then jump into applying these surface rules to their case. And to be fair, if you explain only that a rule requires something general like “good cause,” it’s easy to find facts that sound like they hit such a wide target.
The problem is, if you don’t explain how the rules work on a deeper level, you can’t predict how decision-makers will apply the rules to your case. Broad rules are easy to hit for your opponents, too. You will assemble a list of facts that sound like “good cause.” Your opposing party will assemble a list that sounds like “bad cause.” And now your decision-maker must sift through all those facts and decide which one sounds more convincing.
Instead, the best legal writers teach readers how the rules work on a deeper level that will aim readers at a favorable end. These writers offer a perspective that will suggest how to apply the rules favorably so readers don’t stumble through on their own.
But rule-teaching is hard work. The rules are usually the densest parts of our documents. How do you (1) teach readers enough about the rules so that they can understand on their own how to reach a conclusion, and (2) explain all this so easily that readers don’t need to work for that understanding?
These four techniques will turn you into a professional rule teacher:
  • Teach the law to readers. Explaining complex rules so that they easily apply to your factual situation is tough, so use a consistent step-by-step process to break down the rules in a concrete way that readers can use to reach a conclusion in your case.
  • Teach text-based rules. Rules that come from statutes, regulations, and other codified sources lend themselves to several unique tools. Use trusted interpretation principles—like canons of construction and statutory structure—to help readers understand what the text means.
  • Link your rules to your facts. Once you’ve taught readers how to view the rules, make that application easy by clearly linking your rules with your facts.
  • Make citations useful. Citations and parentheticals slow down legal writing because they interrupt your prose. So use simple tools to increase citation fluency, like moving citations to the ends of sentences and highlighting important citation information in your own text.
Before diving into specific techniques, let’s see the difference that this rule-teaching makes. Imagine you’re reading a rule discussion in a brief and stumble onto this next paragraph. How the rule works is never explained. You first read about a general legal concept (prejudgment interest) and then are besieged with details from the decision.
“This case is controlled by Briggs vs. Terry, 314 F.3d 241, 213 (9th Cir. 2020), which addresses the prejudgment interest rule. That case involved two shipping companies, one of which challenged a contract it had entered into with the other. The plaintiff ultimately succeeded at trial, and was affirmed on appeal. However, on appeal, the court did not include prejudgment issue in its mandate…”
Now watch a legal writer teach us how to understand the rules first. For context, the lawyer’s ultimate argument will be that prejudgment interest should not be given to the other side because the appellate court’s mandate was silent about the interest. The lawyer teaches a rule that leads straight to a favorable ending.
“When a Court renders judgment and its mandate is silent about any award of prejudgment interest, the district court lacks authority to award it. That rule follows directly from the Supreme Court’s decision in Briggs and this Court’s decisions applying it, as well as Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 37(b)...”
Later in the analysis, it will be easy to agree no interest is warranted because the mandate was silent about it—and the lawyer knew that when she taught us the law in the way that she did.
Now check out a rule maven, Judge Andrew Gordon. Watch as he breaks down three rule concepts from three lines of cases so readers never need to work for understanding. The authority and supporting details never jump ahead of simple explanations about how each part of the rule works.
“There are at least three separate lines of cases that provide guidance about whether consent by deception comports with the Fourth Amendment’s requirements.
One line of cases involves law enforcement agents who pose as criminals, or friends or acquaintances of criminals, and use deception to ‘catch those engaged in criminal enterprises.’ For example, in United States v. Bramble, the defendant invited undercover police officers into his home to negotiate the sale of illegal sea otter pelts…
A second line of consent by deception cases involves government agents who deceive the occupants into believing that an emergency or life-threatening situation exists. For example, in United States v. Giraldo, a police officer pretended to work for the gas company and told the defendant she was checking for a gas leak….
A third line of consent by deception cases involves law enforcement officers who conceal their identity and purpose to gain entry for a legitimate or lawful purpose, such as to buy a home, rent an apartment, or to provide a good or service…”
Many lawyers rely on generic conclusions and superficial summaries when relating the rules. If you can instead explain the rules enough so that the application later will feel simple and intuitive—you will be in the best legal writing company.
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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