On Making Legal Writing More Interesting

by Bentley Clark


Out of Ones Head1I get paid to write. There is much jet-setting and hob-nobbing. I wear pearls and go to fancy, fancy parties. I pluck fascinating characters from the ether and build exquisite worlds around them.

Nah. Not really. I do earn most of my living by writing, but I am a paralegal, so the bulk of my job is writing incredibly boring, yet incredibly important court documents. Incredibly boring. If you’ve never picked up a court pleading, you are missing out on a really satisfying nap.

And yet, storytelling is the very foundation of our legal system—replete with character archetypes, story arcs and plot twists. However, unlike a John Grisham novel or the TV series “Damages,” the actual story-telling is absolutely mind-numbing.

Take for example this passage: “Counsel for Petitioner spoke with Respondent on the phone on January 32nd and informed him that he needed to contact counsel when he had a date and time that he wished to retrieve his belongings from the marital home.” Succinct, informative and not overly verbose. Only what the court needs to know; no more, no less.

I think the court would rather I paint it a picture:

The fragile peace of the mid-summer afternoon was shattered by the violent pummeling of the front door. Jane froze in the doorway of the kitchen and watched as if paralyzed as the glass of sweet tea slipped from her hand and shattered on the just-swept hardwood floor. She knew this day would come. Though the police had removed John from the house only days before with a warning that he was not to return, Jane knew he would never heed that warning.

“You better let me in.” John’s voice, low and hostile, tripped into the house through the open living room window. “I know you have the yellow extension cord! If you don’t open this door right now, I will kick it down! That’s my yellow extension cord and I’m not leaving without it!”

In fear for her well-being, Jane turned on her heels back into the kitchen to call 911. Brimming with adrenaline, she knocked the phone from the counter. It fell to the floor and exploded into pieces.

I know the court would rather read something along those lines. I have no doubt that the client would rather have her story told to the court as a narrative. And I would rather have left the bone-dry style of expository writing behind after my freshman year in the English department.

As I am not allowed to use narrative in my daily professional writing, I have been toying with the idea of using rhetoric and persuasive argument. Mind you, I have no training in either. But, I have been taking note of the correspondence from opposing attorneys that comes across my desk. My favorite example of this style of writing so far has been something along the lines of:

Dear Ms. Bentley’s Boss,

My client and I have grown weary of working with you to hash out a visitation and custody plan for her son. We feel that your client is a big poopy-pants and we have decided that he is not playing nice so we are going to take our toys and go home. If your client would like to see his son, he will have to provide my client with the following: a pink Big Wheel with befringed handlebars (circa 1979), a hair off the great Cham’s beard (circa 1598) and a box of assorted Godiva chocolates (cream-filled truffles removed). Should your client choose not to comply with these requests, then we never want to hear him say “I love my son” again.

Sincerely,

Tommy Picked-Last-in-Team-Sports, Esq.

Using this attorney’s example, I have been crafting a new pleading to the court. Tell me what you think:

Your Honor,

Seriously. Mr. Doe is such a horse’s behind. He will not stop calling Mrs. Doe to demand the yellow extension cord. She gave him the orange extension cord when he was removed from the home by the police, but he really wants the yellow one. Honestly, Judge, I have no idea what the difference is between the yellow extension cord and the orange extension cord.

Oh, and he wants the brown laundry hamper, not the white one. And he wants all the tea cups and half of the dessert plates. Thankfully, he doesn’t want the beer stein collection. Katy bar the door if he wanted the beer stein collection!

Anyway, Judge, I digress. So. Yeah. Could you tell Mr. Doe to stop being a booger-eater and have him call us instead of breaking down the door to get to the yellow extension cord? ‘Cause that would be really cool.

Thanks,

B


BentleyClark125Bentley Clark is tickled silly that she found a way to work “Katy bar the door” into a column. You can praise or admonish her for this by sending her a message here.


This article was originally published in the February 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.


Image “Out Of One\’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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