Legal Writing Tips 2021 from Bryan Garner


Bryan Garner on Words / Year in Review

Legal Writing Tips 2021 from Bryan Garner

Photo of Bryan Garner by Winn Fuqua Photography.

This year, Bryan Garner gave us tips for using legal dictionaries, a three-part series on how to run a day of legal writing, and an ode to a state bar journal that champions the use of a simple english. Here’s the full column recap of 2021 by the Black’s Legal Dictionary‘s editor.

We have all had the experience of learning how to get from one place to another. You may have noticed that some of your friends are extremely incompetent: they omit important landmarks but include insignificant landmarks. They don’t see things from your point of view. Other friends are perfect: they draw maps with just enough detail to get you from point A to point D with confidence. Never worry: Whenever you have a question about the journey, you are reassured by the map. … Someone who can draw a good map can probably write a good memoir; someone who cannot draw a good map will undoubtedly write a bad memoir.

Congratulations. You are the newest recruit to your state attorney general’s office. They advertised an experienced litigator with strong writing skills, and you got the job. Your first job as a lawyer was in this same office, and you know the demands can be high. Now, after a few years in private practice, you are one of the firm’s most experienced litigants. After two days of orientation, you have just arrived for your first day of work.

Your predecessor resigned, citing “burnout”. How are you going to get out of this?

Remember the situation: It’s the first day of your new job as an assistant attorney general in your state. You’re an experienced litigator and you apply for the job touting your writing skills. You were told it would be a demanding job, but you thought your experience in private practice was as demanding as anything the new position might present.

Let’s review the situation: you are an experienced litigator and this is your first day working as an assistant attorney general in your state. You have just completed the first of three motions to be presented today. You wrote a one-page motion to consolidate two cases in the state Supreme Court. You gave it to your legal assistant for final editing, and you asked him to bring it back to you for proofreading and final approval so he could file it.

In 2006, during an interview with Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg on advocacy and writing, I asked her if lawyers should focus more on using plain English.

“That would be a very good idea,” she said, adding, “There have been moves around using plain English in contracts and wills. These moves tend to start with a lot of Perhaps she was thinking of ABA President Charles A. Beardsley, who promoted saner methods of drafting wills and contracts as well as streamlined court opinions. were quickly forgotten.

But we have one major exception to the idea that plain-language reforms tend to fizzle: the Michigan Bar Journal.

Many courts, including the United States Supreme Court, cite dictionaries in about half of their decisions. Lawyers who submit factums presumably do the same thing. Given this reality, a moderate degree of lexicographical sophistication is expected of the bar.


Bryan A. Garner became a legal lexicographer as a freshman law student in 1981. Since 1994, he has served as editor of Black’s Law Dictionary. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanAGarner.


These columns reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal or the American Bar Association.

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