The Joy of Legal Writing

by Rebekah Hanley

One of the most-consulted reference books in my home is The Joy of Cooking, a timeless classic.  The book’s title reminds readers that cooking is work that can be deeply satisfying.

The title also reminds me of the joy of legal writing, because preparing written legal analysis can be just as gratifying as preparing food.  Really.  Actually, there are many parallels between pulling together a meal and polishing a memorandum.  Whether I am cooking up a brunch or a brief, I challenge myself to reach similar goals and I enjoy similar rewards.

Designing with the Consumer in Mind

Chefs choose recipes to please those who will consume the fruits of their labor – to satisfy guests’ expectations and to meet their dietary needs.  So those chefs typically offer visitors waffles in the morning and beef bourguignon in the evening.  They ask guests about allergies, and they don’t serve steak to vegetarians.

Similarly, audience expectations and needs drive many choices made by legal writers.   Legal writers craft and revise sentences to meet their readers’ need for easily digestible arguments; persuasive legal writers learn about, and then strategically cater to, audience preferences.

Creating Structure and Balance

A fine meal progresses in discrete stages and includes variety.  It begins with a starter course that whets appetites and appeases hunger until the main meal is served.  The starter might even introduce dinner guests to the theme of the dishes to come.  In addition, most meals include protein, vegetables, and starch, and they offset savory with sweet.

Similarly, formal legal writing typically begins with starters.  An introduction, question presented, and brief answer satisfy the reader’s immediate curiosity but also leave her excited to continue reading.  And like food groups and flavors, the document’s sections complement each other, balancing facts, laws, and arguments.  The pacing of a meal is like the rhythm of a legal brief.

Choosing Ingredients and Tools

A chef gathers ingredients and tools to make a fine meal, visiting multiple markets, carefully selecting produce and spices, and sometimes returning to a store due to the sudden inspiration to adjust the menu.  She pulls equipment from various cabinets and drawers, and she unearths seldom-used, specialized tools.

The skilled legal writer does the same.  Her research is thorough; she systematically consults secondary and primary resources, locating material to firmly support her arguments.  She does not find everything she needs for a superior argument in just one place or during a single research session.  And she combines her rule-based and analogical reasoning skills, always using the tool best suited to communicate her legal analysis.  The result is expertly blended fact and law.

Taste Testing to Refine

Hosts taste a new dish before serving it.  Is it too spicy?  Does it need more salt?  The only way to know is to sample.  Better, though, is to solicit a second opinion on the quality of the cooking.  I think it’s ready; what do you think?

Yes, when I read my prose aloud I see myself standing over a pot of soup, wooden spoon in hand.  And when my colleague looks at my work, she is standing next to me, tasting that soup, and offering me the helpful observation that I added too much seasoning.  Fortunately, a writer can extract surplus language more easily than a cook can remove excess salt.  Indeed, removing unnecessary words is as satisfying as trimming fat from a cut of meat.

Plating to Impress

Plating an exceptional meal — a delicious combination made from the best ingredients — in an ordinary way may cause guests to under-appreciate the food.  Worse, if the food’s presentation is unappetizing, guests may pass on it altogether.

Like diners, legal readers notice format and other arguably superficial details.  A messy document filled with inconsistencies and sloppy errors is unappealing; the brilliant arguments it contains may not be taken seriously or may not be read at all.

Innovating to Heighten Joy

The Joy of Cooking teaches fundamentals and serves as a continuing resource for seasoned cooks.  Ultimately, though, experienced chefs find pleasure in using the book’s well-tested recipes as a springboard for their own creations.

Legal writers are no different.  With experience, we build on CREAC and other familiar organizational paradigms.  We experiment, carefully deviating from the strict structure we ask beginning legal writers to honor.  And that creativity amplifies the joy of legal writing.