Legal Writing Lessons From Harper Lee

By Ryan Jardine

Nelle Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, will celebrate her 87th birthday on Sunday, April 28. This American author, Pulitzer Prize winner and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom provided a role model in Atticus Finch and a vision of the legal system that has inspired many individuals to enter the legal field.

In addition to her impact on the law through her novel, an important lesson on legal writing can be extracted from Lee and her attitude about writing. Of writing, she said,

Writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer. There are people who write, but I think they’re quite different from people who must write.

To become powerful writers, it is imperative that lawyers cultivate urgency and self-discipline in writing, whether it is simple email correspondence, a brief, or a contract.  Exercising this discipline in legal writing should include balancing the need for additional words or phrases with the associated necessity and benefit. With the advance of technology, it is so easy to put words down on a page, to edit, copy, paste, and rework. When all writing and rewriting had to be typewritten or going back even farther, hand written, there was an actual cost associated with every additional word. This naturally forced lawyers to carefully consider the words they chose, the contractual provisions they included and the arguments they made. Today the ability to add text without any associated costs in labor or typeset has often resulted in an overabundance of words and a dilution of meaning. Take a supporting line from the always trenchant Strunk & White:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Strunk & White and Lee’s warnings of verbosity and the associated abundant emptiness rings true for society, as well as legal writers. In recognition of this reality, in one of her only interviews in the last 40 years, Lee notes:  “Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.” Emphasis added.

Expertise with words is often a lawyer’s primary calling card. Let us make sure we use self-discipline in our legal writing and recognize the impact of brevity while so many others risk a loss of meaning in an ever expanding sea of words.

Ryan JardineRyan T. Jardine is a public finance attorney with Kutak Rock LLP in Denver. He is the author of the occasional and predominantly-accurate column, “There’s a Word for That,” which examines the roots and origins of extremely fascinating words. An avid believer in the oxford-comma and a new convert to the one-space-after-a-period cadre, Ryan may be reached by email at, on twitter @LegalRyting, or on LinkedIn.

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