Saturday, December 6, 2008

Improving Your Firm’s Writing

What do others think about your firm? To answer that question, you must ask yourself, "What do others think about my firm’s writing?" What do judges think when your motions come across their desks? What do clients think when they read your letters and memos? Do they think how clear the writing is? How concise? How simple it is without being simplistic? Or do they think it is muddled and confusing. Do they pick out the grammatical gaffes and wonder whether they reflect not only shortcomings in your writing, but reflect a more systemic problem?

Face it. Everything your firm sends out, every motion, letter, memo and even e-mail, reflects not only upon the author but upon the firm. We are constantly being sized up, and the measure of our talents is often what we write. That being the case, we owe it to ourselves to improve not only our own writing, but the writing of each and every attorney at our firm. Nothing less will do.
But how do you get your lawyers to write better? Many think that writing is an innate talent. Either you are a good writer or you’re not, and no amount of effort can change that. Nothing could be further from the truth. Good writers are not born. They generally evolve from mediocrity. They spend hours learning the rules of good writing and hours more applying those rules to their writing. And along the way they realize that writing is a life long process and that no matter how good their writing becomes, it could always be better.

So your first job is to convince your attorneys that their writing can stand improvement. This will be hard news to break. Most lawyers take pride in their writing, some so much that they view any revisions to their work as an affront to their very person. Tell them that their writing is less than perfect and prepare for bruised egos. However, tell them you must.

It is best to institute a firm-wide writing program where attendance is mandatory by all attorneys - partners, senior associates and junior associates alike. By making everyone participate no one feels that he is being singled out for his poor writing. Furthermore, those who believe their writing is beyond reproach can feel, and will probably openly state, that their participation is wholly unnecessary. But they will be in attendance, and they, ironically, will have the most to learn from the experience.

At the first meeting, preferably a lunch meeting (free food does wonders for attendance), explain the rationale for the writing boot camp:

The writing course will improve work product. Better writing translates into a better work product, which clients will appreciate and possibly reward with additional business.

The writing course will improve thinking. Clear writing promotes clear thinking. If you can express yourself in a clear, direct manner, you will be better able to articulate your thoughts and process them, making you a more effective advocate.

The writing course will Improve efficiency. If everyone writes better, less time is spent revising documents. How much time is spent by senior associates and partners rewriting junior and mid level associate writing? If everyone’ s writing improves, less time is spent trying to make it better.

The writing course will standardize everyone’s writing style. Creating a writing program provides you an opportunity to teach your lawyers the same style rules and in so doing, makes their writing more alike. By making everyone ’s writing similar, your readers come to recognize your firm’s writing, as opposing to an individual ’s style. Furthermore, it makes revisions easier when everyone agrees what writing should look like and how it should be revised.

Once you’ve convinced your lawyers of the benefits of a writing program you have to implement one. What does a successful writing program entail? The following are some suggestions.

Discuss good writing. Explain to the attorneys what good writing is and set out three or four principles you want your lawyers to learn, emulate and live by. I suggest you want your lawyers to:
(1) write plain English
(2) say more with fewer words
(3) write in an active, direct manner
If your lawyers accomplish these three goals their writing will be as good as or better than the competition.

Purchase textbooks. Good writing starts with good grammar. Purchase a grammar book for adults, such as "Whose Grammar Book is This Anyway," written by a lawyer. And who could do without Strunk & White’s " Elements of Style." In addition to purchasing 2 to 3 grammar books for your students, purchase 1 or 2 books on style. Create a "writing" reading list, and have your attorneys read a book a month.

Discuss the textbooks. Meet once a month to discuss the book’s highlights and what the attorneys have learned from reading them. You will be amazed how many grammar and style rules you’ve forgotten, and how many you never learned in the first place.

Develop a firm style. One of the overarching goals is to create a firm "voice" or "style" to which all the attorneys subscribe too. To do so, develop a list of writing rules which most, if not all the attorneys agree should be followed. Many of these rules will be derived from the writing books you will ask your attorneys to read. Once you have all the rules, write them down and circulate them. These will be the firm’s commandments which everyone will be encouraged to follow.

Get Published. Encourage your lawyers to submit articles to newsletters, newspapers and magazines. The process of getting an article published is a great way to develop one’s writing skills. Consider making it mandatory to have all your attorneys publish at least one article a year.

Good writing is crucial to your firm’s success. Develop a plan to help your attorneys write better and get your attorneys behind it. As their writing improves, your firm’s profile will improve too and you’ll be left wondering why you waited so long to institute a writing program.

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