“Ransomed? What’s that?”

“I don’t know. But that’s what they do. I’ve seen it in books; and so of course that’s what we’ve got to do.”

“But how can we do it if we don’t know what it is?”

“Why, blame it all, we’ve GOT to do it. Don’t I tell you it’s in the books? Do you want to go to doing different from what’s in the books, and get things all muddled up?”

— Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.

— Mark Twain

No one tries to get things all muddled up, especially in emotional divorce and child custody cases.  It’s just that we feel we have so much to communicate to the divorce and child custody court—a client’s entire life, challenges, hopes and dreams—and so little time and space within which to do so.  This month we’ll explore two resources that can help us do what we’ve got to do as divorce and family lawyers: communicate concisely and persuasively.  And we’ll take a quick look at an added bonus: a practical guide to quoting Shakespeare.


We begin with Marie Buckley’s The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing: Proven Tools and Techniques.  Buckley has created a very practical resource for all forums of written communication, including communicating in the court system, in the office and with opposing counsel, as well as on the internet for divorce and child custody lawyers.  Her 35 chapters cover grabbing attention, using plain English, developing a clear message, researching and organizing legal principles, brainstorming, moving past writer’s block, creating persuasive structures and stories, editing and proofreading, and much more for divorce and child custody lawyers.

Right up front, Buckley shares with us why we should care about our writing:

Why is legal writing so important? Because legal writing drives deals, molds thought, sets rules, and governs relationships.  Because once legal thought is promoted to writing, it becomes a permanent guide and reference. Because our writing represents both our clients and our firm. And because our writing reflects on each of us as an advocate and a person. Our writing defines who we are.

Buckley organizes her lessons around three guiding principles:

Principle One: Use Plain English (“be crisp and clear”).

Principle Two: Lead from the Top (“[prime] your reader about what to look for”).

Principle Three: Tell Your Readers What to do Next (“help your readers decide what to do next”).

The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing is organized along these principles and includes a four-page “Nutshell Summary” for easy reference before we begin that next major document.  

Critical for Buckley is the connection between writer and reader:

What is excellent legal writing? Strong legal writing speaks a modern language—plain English. It respects our readers’ time and intelligence by being concise but thorough. It takes complex ideas and makes them clear. It leads from the top. It builds on the mind’s innate love of pattern and it tells our readers what to do next. The best legal writing earns both the readers’ trust and the right to the readers’ time. Above all, strong writing leads to easy reading.

The founder of Legal Advocacy Workshops, Buckley has been training and coaching lawyers, including divorce and family lawyers, across the country on legal writing for many years.  She uses her background and experience as a litigator at a major Boston law firm to help those of us still in the trenches for our divorce and child custody cases.


Let’s move on to Sandra J. Oster’s Writing Shorter Legal Documents: Strategies for Faster and Better Editing.  Oster’s primary focus is to help us when we face space constraints, but she also wants to help us “develop a more concise and clearer style of writing,” a very important skill for divorce and family lawyers.  

Oster points to four motivations for concise, careful and persuasive editing:

At some time or another, as a lawyer, a legal assistant, or a law student, you may need to shorten a legal document in order to improve its readability and to clarify its text, to free up space for additional information, to make information easier for readers to access and retrieve, or to meet length requirements that may be specified by a court or another recipient.  It is the rare legal document that does not need editing. . . .

Writing Shorter Legal Documents develops 35 editing strategies for divorce and family lawyers’ consideration.  The overarching goal is to advance readability and credibility.  The reader must be able to “readily understand the content and to quickly locate and retrieve information from the document.”  And we need to maintain high credibility throughout the process, which is imperative to divorce and child custody law firms.

Oster begins with “An Approach to Shorten Legal Documents.”  This chapter helps us choose the right strategy for the specific challenge we are facing in our divorce and family law cases.  There also is this caveat:

Clarity is paramount.  If the application of a strategy in this handbook decreases the clarity of the text, you should not apply it.  Also, emphasis of particular information may be important in your legal argument. If the application of a strategy changes the emphasis in a way that you do not want, you should not apply the strategy.

Oster then moves into her 35 strategies, organized into four categories:

Revising Terminology

Revising Lists, Phrases, and Sentences

Changing the Appearance of Text on the Page

Cutting Content

The strategies are simple and provide a great checklist of options when the clock is ticking and the deadline is looming, which is often the case in a divorce and child custody law firm.

Oster is a lawyer with a PhD in linguistics.  Her technical writing and editing skills have been honed in both the scientific and legal arenas. 


And now your bonus: Margaret Graham Tebo’s Shakespeare for Lawyers: A Practical Guide to Quoting the Bard.  Graham Tebo has taken some of Shakespeare’s most famous and frequently used quotations, provided context for the quotations and suggested how we, as the best divorce and child custody lawyers, might use them, properly and effectively.  

Shakespeare for Lawyers takes over 100 quotes pulled from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets and organizes them into 6 chapters:

A Rhapsody of Words

The Game’s Afoot

Witnesses and Other Fools

Lies, Liars, and Slander

Mercy, Justice, and Truth

Our Noble Profession

For each quote, Graham Tebo highlights the quote, cites the play or sonnet, describes “what it means,” and then explains “how to use it.”  It’s a fun little book that fits in the palm of your hand, which is a perfect addition to your divorce and family law library.

Graham Tebo is a lawyer with a background in journalism, legal writing and teaching.  She enjoys her involvement with the Dirty Dozen Chicago writing group.


Your writing will be more effective for all your divorce and family law proceedings if you don’t get things all muddled up.  Use plain and simple language. Build brief sentences with short words.  Kill most of the adjectives and adverbs. And be creative. Your writing will gain strength, and you will be giving the gift of easy reading to your audience as a divorce and family lawyer.

Marie Buckley, The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing: Proven Tools and Techniques (2011, American Bar Association) $79.95.

Sandra J. Oster, Writing Shorter Legal Documents: Strategies for Faster and Better Editing (2011, American Bar Association) $59.95.

Margaret Graham Tebo, Shakespeare for Lawyers: A Practical Guide to Quoting the Bard (2010, American Bar Association) $14.95.