Legal Writing Principle 7: Start Smart
Legal writing is full of complex legal concepts, but you can approach them effectively when you master the basic fundamentals.
Beginnings are everything in persuasion science. The beginning of your briefs will color everything else that comes after. Same goes for the beginning of your sections, your paragraphs—and even your sentences. Once your reader picks up your document they start making judgments about you. Some are explicit and some are implicit. And these initial ideas—these judgments about things like your credibility and competency—are nearly impossible to shake. The psychology literature is full of studies showing that even when faced with proof that we were wrong, we humans have a real problem changing our first impressions.
Some of the reason is that once we make initial judgments, we are constantly looking for evidence that we’re right about them. This is known as confirmation bias. So if your reader spots a poorly written sentence at the outset, their mind can’t help but look for more bad writing as they go. Also important is that those first sentences will spark emotions in your readers (either favorable or not). And studies suggest that sundry other biases (like our hatred of uncertainty, our reliance on imperfect information, and the effects of priming) all conspire to make the beginnings extra important.
Not surprisingly, the best legal writers know crafting strong beginnings takes extra care. Check out the below examples.
Let’s start with a Judge on the 11th Circuit. Below is the first paragraph of her opinion. Note how she takes your assumptions about what a “felony battery” is and blasts them out of the gate. Note also the fantastic style: A well-placed colon, followed by two short conjunctions—and a well-balanced trio of sentences with a medium, short, and longer one to finish. Finally, the judge incorporates her theme: Felony battery is a term of art that should be defined by legal analysis and precedent, not gut reactions to what seems “violent.”
Here’s an opening sentence from Judge Wood on the Seventh Circuit in the Brendan Dassey case. This is easily the best sentence of her dissent. The theme is blaring: Dassey’s confession was a script provided by police. And the style is excellent. It’s also a great example of a long sentence done right. The phrases in between the punctuation are all well balanced and clear, with little room to get lost:
Or take this opening salvo from Judge Davis. Lots of pith and poignant examples to create a good first impression and get his key points across:
And to round things out, Circuit Judge Wilson. He makes his first impression here by leading off with some direct dialogue and a hypothetical that gets his readers thinking:
Other Tips to Start Smart
Here are some other tips and strategies you can use to strengthen your starts.
Write with incredible pith at the outset. Top legal writers put their best material in the start.
On the flip side: No typos, odd constructions, or simply poor word choice or dense sentences.
Try to counteract biases or assumptions your reader has.
Figure out how you can incorporate key themes, facts, rule statements—or whatever else is most persuasive from your document.
Consider how you can put your reader in the right emotional state.
Direct dialogue can be a helpful tool to connect with your reader on a deeper level, too.
Starting strong in your legal writing is incredibly important. So try these techniques to write stronger introductions, section starts, and other beginnings throughout your legal documents.
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