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Practice Tips

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Legal Memos Don’t Have to be Bad

By Alexander MacDonald

 

Few people who pick up a research memo expect a good read. If they have much experience with memos—or legal writing in general—they expect instead to slog through page after page of jargon and verbosity. They read on only because they need something. They need research; they need information; they need an answer. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t dream of reading past the subject line.

 

It doesn’t have to be that way. A research memo can flow just as smoothly as an article from the Economist or the New York Times. Subject-matter complexity is no excuse. If Stephen Hawking can explain the birth of the universe at an eighth-grade reading level in A Brief History of Time, your average lawyer can do the same with a run-of-the-mill tort or copyright issue.

 

Nor do you have to be Charles Allen Wright to write smooth memos. Any lawyer can do it. All you have to do is pay attention to the details. Here are three to focus on:

 

Make your memo skimmable. Good memos are skimmable memos. The typical memo reader is busy: partners, clients, and judges don’t have the time to put up their feet and meander through 20 to 30 pages. They’re looking for information; probably quite specific information. By making your memo skimmable, you’ll help them find it.

 

Start with your section headings. Any memo longer than two pages should have them. Ideally, you’ll write them in complete sentences. “Analysis” is a vacuous heading; it gives the reader no useful information. Try instead something like, “Johnson is not entitled to overtime because he is an exempt executive employee under the FLSA.” And beneath that, use subheadings like, “Johnson is paid on a salary basis” and “Johnson regularly and customarily supervises two full-time employees.” Those headings are descriptive. They help readers skip right to the information they need.

 

Another way to improve skimmability is to write clear topic sentences. Every paragraph in your memo should have a unifying theme or topic; and that theme or topic should pop out from the paragraph’s first sentence. If each topic sentence succinctly describes what follows, readers can breeze through your memo, touching down only on the high points, until they find what they’re interested in.

 

Tie your memo together with transitions. Once your readers settle down, they should be able to glide through your analysis without any bumps or interruptions. They shouldn’t have to work to figure out how everything fits together. That means you need good transitions.
 

Used correctly, transitions connect your paragraphs like the pieces of a puzzle. If that sounds complicated, don’t worry. You only have three general categories of transitions to master—pointing words, echo words, and transition words:
 

Pointing words are demonstrative adjectives or pronouns like “this” or “that.” They link paragraphs by “pointing” back toward the preceding paragraph. For example, if your first paragraph discusses a relevant holding, you could begin the next paragraph with, “This holding bolsters our client’s position because . . . .”
 

Echo words, on the other hand, repeat some word from the prior paragraph’s last sentence. If one paragraph ends with “Jones then filed an appeal,” the next paragraph could begin, “On appeal, he argued . . . .”
 

Finally, transition words are the easiest to recognize. They draw an explicit contrast or connection with the prior paragraph. They include words like but, and, thus, and finally. The trouble with transition words is that lawyers tend to love the weightier ones: however, moreover, therefore, and the like. These heavy words slow down their writing. To speed things up, use lighter, shorter transitions (e.g., and for moreover; but for however).

 

Transition words are also a good way to connect sentences within paragraphs. But don’t overuse them. Start no more more than 10% of your sentences with and or but. Otherwise, you’ll exhaust your reader.

 

Instead of explicit transitions, try to use sentence structure to lead the reader from one idea to the next. Put old information at the beginning of the sentence and new information at the end. That will improve your sentence flow in two ways: it will emphasize new information, and it will lend your writing a natural cadence. Your sentences will seem to march from one idea to the next, and your reader will feel impelled to follow.

 

Downsize your diction. Once you have your readers marching, don’t make them to trip over your word choice. Keep your vocabulary low to the ground. Big words aren’t road signs; they’re roadblocks.

 

Many writers believe—mistakenly—that big words impress readers. In fact, the opposite is true. Studies have shown that even highly educated readers perceive writers who use inflated diction as less intelligent than those who write in plain English. Your words, then, should be the simplest and shortest you can use to convey your meaning. You want to keep your readers focusing on your memo, not the dictionary.

 

These tips won’t alone make a great memo. You still have to research your topic, construct your analysis, and punch out your prose. But they will help you pull your prose out of the muck so many memos get stuck in. Research memos don’t have to plod along. Make them flow, and your readers will thank you.

 

Alexander MacDonald is a 2012 graduate of the William & Mary School of Law. He currently works in the Office of the General Counsel of the United States Postal Service. He can be reached at amac2644@gmail.com.