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The Right Way to Write Legal Documents


Concise and clear writing is expected of lawyers but legal writing doesn’t always come easy. There are many pitfalls trial lawyers will encounter and specific court rules to follow. By having a clear understanding of the challenges and paying close attention to guidelines, the legal writing process will go much more smoothly.

A group of lawyers looking for advice on legal writing recently attended an MCLE seminar led by attorney Molly McKibben of GB&W, Deanell Tacha, the Dean of Pepperdine’s School of Law, and United States District Court Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell. Tacha facilitated the seminar by speaking about her experience reviewing writing at the Federal Circuit Court of Appeal level. Judge O’Connell weighed in about writing at the Federal District Court level and McKibben discussed writing at the state trial court level.

McKibben outlined various issues involved with writing opposing motions for summary judgment, motions to compel, motions to quash, ex parte applications, and pretrial motions such as motions in limine.

Some key takeaways in the writing and editing process include:

  • Don’t ignore cases that go against your argument; distinguish them.
  • Find one solid case to support a statement; limit the number of citations.
  • Read and Shepardize every case the other side cites.
  • Remove unnecessary accusations or personal attacks on opposing counsel or parties; judges rarely sanction, and bringing up irrelevant actions will only make you look petty.

McKibben also discussed the specific issues attorneys in Los Angeles state trial courts face, including why it’s critical to pay attention to the California Rules of Court and Los Angeles Superior Court Local Rules as they relate to legal writing and filing of relevant papers.

“You must be familiar with the California Rules of Court related to formatting,” said McKibben. “Don’t think you can mess with spacing. Judges will notice and have even rejected papers that don’t comply with formatting requirements. Follow California Rules of Court Rule 2.108,” she said.

  • Pages must be one-and-a-half or double spaced.
  • Footnotes and quotes can be single-spaced.
  • Each line of type must line up with pleading line numbers on the side, with three-line numbers to each vertical inch of space.

Some additional tips include letting a first draft sit for a day before coming back to edit it; cut out any repetitive ideas or sentences; if you can find an agreeable person, have a non-lawyer read the final draft to make sure it flows and makes sense. Legal documents are a product of a lot of research and thinking which doesn’t happen in one sitting. As you hone your writing skills, it will simultaneously help you prepare for oral arguments, another imperative skill for trial lawyers.