Using Emphasis

Explore how skilled legal writers employ strategic language choices and rhetorical devices to subtly emphasize key points, enhancing clarity and impact without relying on excessive emphasis techniques.
  • Joe Regalia
Legal writers love using emphasis. Anything that is even moderately important in their documents is bolded, italicized, underlined, all-caps, or sometimes all four. 
But read the great legal writers and you’ll notice something. They rarely use emphasis like this. Instead, they use verbs, nouns, and sentence structure to more subtly emphasize points so that they don’t need to be so obvious. 
After all, if you constantly hit your readers over the head with emphasis, then how will they know you really mean it? Pretty soon, your emphasis just looks like a desperate plea for attention. 
For example, here’s an example of some lazy emphasis: 
Courts have consistently held as follows: “The standard for showing harm in defamation cases is strikingly high, and that threshold is not met by a merely circumstantial showing.” 
How else can you emphasize these points without the emphasis? Be surgical with your quotes, use stronger verbs, and deploy other rhetorical devices that will do much more for you than some lazy italics: 
Courts have made clear: Plaintiffs must leap a “strikingly high” hurdle to show harm in defamation cases. “Circumstantial showings” will not cut it. 
That doesn’t mean that emphasis isn’t useful. Use sparingly, emphasis can help drive home a point. But the key is that there must be a reason to use emphasis beyond just saying “I think this is important.” Lots of things are important, and other tools are usually better for communicating that. 
When is emphasis helpful? A few situations. 
First, when emphasis will help readers distinguish between two concepts by driving home a key contrast. 
“What the defendant misses in his papers is the difference between domestic discovery requests and foreign requests. This Court has held that foreign requests require an additional showing that the defendant has now admitted he never included–and now can’t include given the deadlines for amendment as past.” 
Second, when you want to highlight a word or phrase within a larger piece of language. 
“The statute imposes both a damages requirement and a procedural process requirement: 
Persons filing a claim under this act must suffer actual harm. Each claim must contain the name, date, and filing status of the person.” 
Third, very occasionally, when a point is so important that you just have to be sure your readers notice: 
“The district court dismissed plaintiff’s case with prejudice. That ends the matter: The defendant’s entire argument on appeal assumes that dismissal was without prejudice.” 
Joe Regalia 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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