There’s no denying technology has drastically changed the practice of law, but there’s one thing that has stayed the same, even as legal technologies have advanced: the need for attorneys to know how to write.
Whether it’s a complaint, an arbitration agreement or an appellate brief, knowing how to economize words to make a point within a limited word count is a skill that all attorneys, particularly litigators, must master to succeed in the law. That’s why the Indiana State Bar Association’s Litigation Section will offer a writing workshop with an internationally known legal writing expert at its fourth annual Litigation Symposium in August.
The August 16 workshop will feature Tim Terrell, a professor at Emory University School of Law and frequent legal writing lecturer and teacher. Drawing on the symposium’s theme of “Winning Your Case with the Written Word,” Terrell’s presentation will review basic writing principles and will teach attorneys how to apply those principles to most effectively convey their message.
The symposium will also feature a judicial panel consisting of Indiana trial and appellate court judges, giving attorneys the opportunity to hear what judges most like to see when they’re reading briefs.
“The seminar will be suitable for both litigators and appellate lawyers,” said Melissa Cohen, a Merrillville attorney and chair of the Litigation Section. “Professor Terrell is going to gear his course toward persuading and moving minds for both arenas.”
Decades of experience
Prior to joining the faculty at Emory, Terrell practiced for two years at the Atlanta law firm now known as Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. Terrell said he was not a particularly great writer when he was practicing, but he had developed an interest in the writing process during his years at Yale Law School.
While writing for the Yale Law Journal, Terrell worked under an editor who came from a background in the newspaper industry. Given that experience, Terrell said the editor frequently took the time to explain the stylistic choices he made when editing articles, an experience the law professor now looks back on as “nothing short of a revelation” and an indispensable asset to his future legal writing career.
Flash forward to Terrell’s Emory days, when he began to put his knowledge of legal writing to use in an associate writing program for an Atlanta law firm. Terrell then met Stephen Armstrong, a former newspaper professional who became Terrell’s co-author of the book “Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s guide to Effective Writing and Editing,” first published in 1992.
From there, Terrell began a career-long lecture circuit that has taken him across the country and across the globe, teaching attorneys how to effectively use words to advocate for their clients.
He’s perhaps best known for teaching an annual appellate judge writing and editing workshop at the New York University Law School Institute of Judicial Administration, a program he says has been attended by Hoosier judges and justices.
Terrell makes no distinction between practice area, practice type or even practice language – the basic principles of good legal writing are universal, he said, and that’s the message he’ll share in Indiana.
Back to basics
Terrell’s presentations do not include tips or a step-by-step process for improving legal writing. Instead, he focuses on how the basic principles of law and writing can coalesce into a well-written brief or filing.
On a legal level, the Emory professor said the general principles of the law are carried out through specific rules of law, and the same theory applies to writing — the overarching principles of writing are supported by specific techniques. Terrell’s lectures, including the one he’ll give at the ISBA symposium, focus on tailoring those techniques to writing for the law.
One principle, for example, is the notion that shorter sentences are always best. But given the complex nature of legal concepts, shorter sentences generally won’t work, Terrell said. Thus, the technique that he teaches is how to write longer sentences in such a way that readers can process the information as if it were written in shorter chunks.
Terrell’s programs also focus on the principle of structured writing. While many attorneys may try to impress with flashy sentences, readers will still struggle through their work if those sentences are not organized in a way that makes sense, he said.
“The point I make with audiences is that elegant sentences will never save a poorly-structured document,” Terrell said.
At the end of Terrell’s workshop, the symposium will switch to a panel discussion with Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush, Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Margret Robb, Marion Superior Judge Heather Welch and Boone Superior Judge Matthew Kincaid. Together, the judges will opine on the traits they think are indicative of good legal writing and those they wish attorneys would no longer include in their court filings.
Looking back to her early days in the law, Taft attorney and ISBA President Andi Metzel said she would have relished the opportunity to hear from judges about what they expected from her writing. And even now as a seasoned litigator, Metzel said she thinks all attorneys can benefit from a lecture that demonstrates how legal writing has changed since their first days in practice and how to adapt their writing to a modern law practice.
“There’s a lot less wherefores and henceforths,” she said.
Registration for the symposium is now open online at inbar.org/events.•