Some time ago, I received a private message from an ex-Home Office official who wanted to tell me something.
I didn’t know him. But he certainly knew about me.
It was his job to respond to incoming claims for judicial review against the Secretary of State for the Home Department. I normally don’t stop to think about the individuals whose job it is to respond to the claims that I’m drafting, but this encounter gave me a reason to reflect more on that process.
Here’s the message:
I thanked him for his feedback and our discussion continued:
(I acknowledge that there are a minority of immigration advisors responsible for filling up Judge’s caseloads with hopeless and poorly drafted applications. To that extent, the yardstick he was measuring my work with could have been in better shape! Even so, I welcome the feedback, particularly when it comes from my opponent).
Three learning points about written advocacy stand out for me from this interaction.
- Open strong: I try to start most of my legal documents with a brief snapshot that sums up what the whole case is about. That helps to anchor me (and the reader) with a firm understanding of the gist of the case. Do this within the first few lines if you can and Judges may thank you for it. A strong opening can shape the reader’s understanding by providing the context and framing for what follows. A weak opening has the opposite effect – leaving the reader to do the hard work of figuring out what the essence of your case is, reducing your influence immediately;
- Summarise: linked to the above is the importance of summarising your case, where possible. As lawyers, part of our job is to condense vast amounts of law and fact into accessible narratives, and to stage-manage the chaotic scenery of a case. Focus your efforts on tearing chunks out of the decision that you say is wrong as summarily as possible. Leave out irrelevant facts and unnecessary case law – don’t throw things in because it might come in handy later. Just cut it out. Likewise, ditch overblown, emotive language (particularly in cases that are themselves emotive). No hyperbole. No hysterics. Cold, hard, dispassionate writing can be irresistably persuasive.
- Engage your audience: whether you’re writing a legal document, on the phone to a caseworker, addressing a crowded court or tribunal room or , your actions as a legal adviser are under constant scrutiny. You have to calibrate your communication to your audience, their attention, interests and values. Everything is communication (from the way you present yourself to your word-choices on paper). Everything is therefore a potential exercise in marketing. Clear and effective communication across these channels is a real asset and helps to make the law more accessible.
Let me know your legal writing tips in the comments below.