Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

Open With a Bang, Close With a Request

call to actionA powerful opening is a key to persuasive legal writing, but a weak close can make it all for naught.

Too often, lawyers overlook this when drafting a brief or delivering an oral argument. They start tepidly and gradually run out of steam. They end with a whimper instead of a bang.

The key is understanding that rhetorical openings and closings have different functions. Your opening words should grab the attention of your audience. Your summation should motivate them to act.

“The bane of so-called persuasive legal writing is that openers are typically slow and muddled and closers are rote and perfunctory,” says Bryan Garner, editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and President of LawProse. “[M]ost briefs and motions consist almost entirely of undifferentiated middle —lacking any proper opener or closer. If the opener says anything at all, it’s likely to be ‘for all the following reasons.’ And the closer is likely to say ‘for all the foregoing reasons.’”

Garner says the problem begins in law school.

“It’s dogmatically taught in moot-court programs that a conclusion must contain nothing but a one-sentence prayer: ‘For the reasons hereinabove stated, Jones requests that the judgment be affirmed.’ This benighted doctrine contradicts everything that professional writers and rhetoricians have ever said—from the time of Aristotle to the present day.”

Garner’s premise is that good writing is good writing, whether it’s a law brief or a shopping list. He says too many lawyers forget that and lapse into lazy or rote rhetoric.

Six Tips for Fabulous Endings

Here are some pointers Garner shared in the ABA Journal for crafting conclusions that pack a punch:

1. Take a cue from news writing. He suggests selecting three articles at random from a respected publication. “Scrutinize just the openers and closers. I’ll bet you’ll find that, more often than not, a unifying thread from the opener gets woven into the closer in a way that’s intellectually satisfying. That’s a real lesson there.”

2. Know what to avoid. Steer clear of closings that are tedious, rambling or simply repeat the same points you’ve already made – often with little word variation.

3. Add some juice. “This is the place, if there is one, to begin injecting a little emotion. Avoid that on page one, which should be coolly logical. This is also the place to make a policy argument that might not have fit well in the body of the brief. The point is to find some way of making your points a little differently at the end. Rack your brain to think of the approach.”

4. Change your perspective. “I like to write the conclusion in a separate sitting, without looking at the introduction or the body of what I’ve already written, but trying to find a slightly different angle. Just as a photographer finds that moving a step or two one way or the other changes the view.”

5. Use two words in your closing that don’t appear anywhere else. This makes your closing stand out.

6. Rewrite. Blissful eloquence rarely emerges in a first draft. You’ve got to keep working on it. Garner says when he works with law firms he has them rewrite a humdrum closer until it rocks.

What tips for effective closings would you add to the list?

Source: ABA Journal

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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