What is ‘Good Legal Writing’ and Why Does it Matter?

68 Pages Posted: 25 Sep 2011 Last revised: 12 Jan 2012

See all articles by Mark K. Osbeck

Mark K. Osbeck

University of Michigan Law School

Date Written: September 23, 2011


Law schools face increasing pressure to improve instruction in practice-oriented skills. One of the most important of these skills is legal writing. The existing literature on legal writing contains various rules and suggestions as to how legal writers can improve their writing skills. Yet it lacks an adequate theoretical account of the fundamental nature of good legal writing. As a result, legal writers are left without a conceptual framework to ground the individual rules and suggestions. This article attempts to fill the theoretical void in the literature by offering a systematic analysis of what it is for a legal document to be well-written. It starts by examining a foundational conceptual issue, which is what legal writers mean when they say that a legal document is well-written. It argues that legal readers judge a document to be well-written if the writing helps them make the decisions they need to make in the course of their professional duties. The article then provides an analysis of the fundamental qualities that enable legal writing to do this, concluding that there are three such qualities: clarity, conciseness, and the ability to appropriately engage the reader. The article explains why each of these qualities is essential to good legal writing, and it examines the tools good writers use to make their writing clear, concise, and engaging. Lastly, the article examines what it is that distinguishes the very best writing in the field, arguing that great legal writing is not just writing that is especially clear, concise, and engaging, but is instead writing characterized by a separate quality, elegance, that is aesthetic in nature. The article then goes on to explore what it is that makes such writing elegant, and whether it is desirable for legal writers to strive for elegance in their own writing. The article concludes by briefly considering the pedagogical implications of the analysis discussed in the previous sections.

Keywords: legal writing, good writing, practice-oriented skills, clear writing, concise writing, engaging writing, elegant writing

JEL Classification: K19

Suggested Citation

Osbeck, Mark K., What is ‘Good Legal Writing’ and Why Does it Matter? (September 23, 2011). U of Michigan Public Law Working Paper No. 252, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1932902 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1932902

Mark K. Osbeck (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Legal Research Bldg 912
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States
734-764-9337 (Phone)
734-764-8309 (Fax)

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