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How to Diagnose the Four Most Common Writing Symptoms That Partners Report
By Ross Guberman –
When partners report the symptoms of associates’ writing problems, they often sound like a patient who goes to the doctor and says, “I don’t feel so hot, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
So below I reveal the four writing symptoms that BigLaw partners most often report. And then I share the diagnoses that these vague observations likely reflect. I even prescribe a treatment plan or two—but don’t worry, PD professionals, I promise not to send a bill!
First Vague Symptom: “He writes like he’s still in law school.”
Likely Diagnosis: The associate still expects to be rewarded for “ideational fluency”—the skill that gets you top grades on law school exams. He is probably an intellectual type who loves “on the one hand,” “on the other hand” analyses but is afraid to take a firm position on any legal issue.
(Hint: This problem often disappears if the associate commits to setting forth on the first page of every document a single idea or action that he want to reader to endorse.)
Second Vague Symptom: “Her writing is not persuasive.”
Likely Diagnoses: The associate spends too much time discussing cases and authorities without linking them to the client’s fact pattern or business goals. Or she thinks that hyperbolic attack language is a substitute for reasoned analysis. Or both.
(Hint: These associates often improve if they learn to explain exactly why various authorities help their client’s cause before they engage in any copying-and-pasting or quoting.)
Third Vague Symptom: “His writing needs more punch.”
Likely Diagnoses: The associate is miming the stereotypes of lawyers’ writing, purposely seizing on every possible heavy-handed or pretentious construction, all the while linking his sentences with stiff connectors like “Moreover” and “However.” Or he is not confident enough about the subject matter to express thoughts directly, naturally, and even evocatively. Or both.
(Hint: In many cases, these associates will improve if they start using the readability statistics function in Microsoft Word.)
Fourth Vague Symptom: “Her drafts are way too long / don’t get to the point.”
Likely Diagnosis: The associate probably clings to the myth that the only way to make a document shorter is to cut important content, which she doesn’t want to do. Someone probably once criticized this associate, in fact, for leaving out some essential point, so now she overcompensates by including every possible detail and issue, no matter how remote.
(Hint: These associates need to learn that they can cut at least a word or two from most of their sentences. If they can trim things down at the word level by spotting common wordiness culprits, they won’t even need to consider cutting anything of substance.)
By the way, if you think partners are vague about associates’ writing problems, you should try talking to the associates themselves. The problems they report to me are nearly always external: the firm never gives them enough time, or they just can’t adapt to the varying styles of those crazy, idiosyncratic partners. But that’s a topic for another day!
Ross Guberman is the president of Legal Writing Pro LLC, a training and consulting firm. From Alaska and Hawaii to Paris and Hong Kong, he has conducted more than a thousand programs on three continents for prominent law firms, federal judges, and dozens of agencies and associations.
Ross is also a Professorial Lecturer in Law at the George Washington University Law School, where he teaches a seminar on drafting and writing strategy.
Ross holds degrees from Yale, the Sorbonne, and the University of Chicago Law School.
Ross is the author of Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates, an Amazon bestseller that reviewers have praised as a “tour de force,” “a must for the library of veteran litigators,” and “an indispensable tool” filled with “practical, trenchant advice.” The first edition has sold 30,000 copies, and the book was nominated for Scribes Book Award for the best legal book of 2011. Ross’s next books arePoint Taken: How to Write Like the World’s Greatest Judges and a guide to the world’s best contract-drafting tips.
An active member of the bar, Ross is also a former professional musician, translator, and award-winning journalist. After the federal takeover of Fannie Mae, Slate magazine called his 2002 article about the company “totally brilliant and prescient.” In her bestseller Reckless Endangerment, New York Times business columnist Gretchen Morgenson wrote that “the article was groundbreaking and made even the most jaded Washingtonian take note.”
Ross has commented on business, law, writing, training, and lawyer development for newspapers, radio stations, and television networks. He has also addressed several major international conferences, including the American Society of Training and Development, NALP’s Annual Education Conference, the Professional Development Consortium, the Professional Development Institute, and the Association for Continuing Legal Education.
The American Society for Training & Development has awarded Ross its Certified Professional in Learning and Performance™ credential for passing a rigorous eight-part test and for creating a standardized writing assessment that he has since administered to more than a thousand lawyers.
A Minnesota native, Ross lives with his wife and two children outside Washington, DC. Family travel has taken them everywhere from Australia to Zambia.