Better Legal Writing Starts with Better Time Management

Written by Chris Jensen, Founder, Legal Writing Coach

Most lawyers run out of time before they can produce their best writing. So an easy way for lawyers to improve their writing is to manage their time better.

The Problem

The late US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting”. He meant that one’s best writing happens in the editing (rewriting) stage – if at all.

Novelists have ample time to rework their writing until they’re satisfied with the result. Lawyers don’t; they work under strict time limits and tight deadlines.

How do lawyers manage their limited writing time? I often ask lawyers how they typically divide their time on, say, a 10-hour writing project between the three main steps in the writing process: (1) pre-writing, (2) first draft, and (3) editing. The usual response is 2-4 hours on pre-writing, 4-6 hours on the first draft, and one hour on editing. In other words, most lawyers have used up most of the time they can spend on a writing project by the time they get to the editing stage.

And there’s the problem. If your best writing happens when you edit, and if you’ve left yourself little time to edit, then you’ll never have a chance to produce your best writing before the deadline arrives. Most of the writing tips and techniques I teach to lawyers are best implemented in the editing stage. They are thus of limited value if a lawyer doesn’t leave enough time to edit.

Proofreading is not Editing

Given that lawyers typically leave little time to edit, the only “editing” they can manage is a quick check of the document for obvious errors (grammar, punctuation, typos, names, dates, etc.). But this type of quick, superficial check is not editing at all; it’s proofreading.

Editing is a deep review of the document for all potential problems: structure, style, usage, etc. It requires time.

Create a Time Management Plan

The first solution is to manage your time so you have more time to edit.

Every time you receive a substantial writing project, ask how much (billable) time you can/should spend on it. Based on that, quickly create a time management plan that leaves as much time as possible to edit. For example, instead of spending, say, 40%, 50% and 10% of your time respectively on the three steps in the writing process, spend 40%, 20% and 40%, respectively.

How, you might ask, can I spend only 20% of my total time on the first draft? Here’s how.

First, once you’ve finished your research and have your answer, resist the urge to immediately jump into the first draft. Instead, do a detailed outline. It’s a much more efficient use of your time to create an outline in the pre-writing stage instead of organising the document as you type the first draft.

Second, recognise that the goal of the first draft is simply to get something onto paper that you can then start to edit. If you’ve done an outline in the pre-writing stage, you won’t spend any time structuring your first draft. Major points in the outline simply become your headings; minor points in the outline become your topic sentences, introducing paragraphs. Then, as you fill in the outline with content, do it quickly. Don’t worry too much about style or grammar in the first draft – just get your ideas onto paper.

It’s a misunderstood fact that the first draft is the least important step in the writing process. Most lawyers spend far too much time on the first draft by trying to make it perfect, which takes valuable time away from the editing stage.

Use a System

Now you’ve arrived at the editing stage with plenty of time to spare. The next tip is to use a system when you edit.

Very few lawyers use a system when they edit. Most of us follow a “schizophrenic” approach to editing in which we read through the document and try to spot all possible problems simultaneously. Such an approach is unrealistic, ineffective and inefficient. Our mind is not good at spotting multiple problems at once.

Instead of this haphazard approach to editing, try a systematic approach. One idea I call “the four-step edit”. With this system, you edit the document four times, moving from the big issues to the smaller, more refined issues with each step. Each edit is quick because you’re looking for only one type of problem.

In the first edit, you look only for big structural issues. Is the document structured logically overall? Is the structure easy for the reader to follow? Do I need more “navigation aids” (lists, headings, transitions, paragraphs, topic sentences, etc.)? Does it make sense to structure around “ICRA” (Issue, Conclusion, Rule, Application)?

In the second edit, you look for opportunities to cut words (without changing the original meaning) to create a more concise document. This is the quickest and best way to improve your style by cutting jargon and other sources of “legalese” from your writing.

In the third edit, you look for opportunities to simplify sentences. The goal is short, direct, positive, subject-verb-object (together and close to the front) sentences where main characters are subjects and important actions are verbs.

In the fourth edit, you (finally) proofread. Here you check for usage errors: grammar, punctuation and vocabulary. (Tip: If you run out of time and can’t proofread every sentence in the document, at least check the big, visible parts, such as the cover page, the opening and closing paragraphs and the headings.)

Advantages to Using a System

There are many advantages to following a system when you edit. First, it’s realistic: if you’re looking for only one kind of error at a time, the chances are better that you’ll spot them. Second, it’s scientific, which helps you create distance from your writing and see it more objectively. Third, it’s more efficient, meaning, although you do four edits, you actually save time (to achieve the same result) over the haphazard approach.

A Tip for Supervisors

Supervisors can do their part to help younger lawyers better manage the time they have for a writing project. Supervisors can develop a project management sheet that is part of every major writing project. When supervisors give writing assignments, they go through the time management sheet with the lawyer to clarify key questions, to establish the maximum amount of (billable) time, and to allot that time effectively so the lawyer spends as much time as possible in the editing stage.

Questions that might be included in the project management sheet include the following.

• What is the deadline? Is it hard or soft?
• How long should the work product be?
• How much (billable) time should I spend?
• What form should the assignment take?
• Does the firm have a model I should follow?
• What will be done with the project once submitted (sent to the client, used for a motion, etc.)?
• What is the jurisdiction and procedural status (if a dispute)?
• Does the supervisor have style and formatting preferences?
• Does the supervisor/client prefer British or American English?

The above tips will help lawyers become better writers simply by using their time more effectively.