The Legal Craft

By Dean R P Edwards

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Clunky, imprecise and obtuse, poor legal writing is not an uncommon sight. It frustrates the layperson as much as the lawyer whose job it is to untangle the knots of ill reasoning and deadweight diction.

How often then do lawyers remember that they are craftsmen?

Perhaps because legal writing is highly technical, and often formulaic, some lawyers may think of themselves as technocrats and less as craftsmen. But the discerning lawyer is as much a craftsman with her writing as the tailor is in fitting a suit and the violinmaker in carving her wares.

Every letter, e-mail, memorandum and the like should reflect an artisan’s touch.

Reading the American sociologist Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman (a highly recommended read) brought to mind the importance of thinking of our work as a craft. So I would like to propose that the lawyer as craftsman can be an important exercise in self-reflection.

Any craft demands patience and expertise, neither of which comes without discipline and practice. More importantly, we should derive pleasure from the work itself, and not treat each task, once completed, as another one off the list, or mere means to the next pay-cheque.

Our goal as legal craftsmen lies somewhere between pith and precision. Often the task at hand easily accommodates both (despite perhaps our struggles). At other times, the waypoints are seemingly irreconcilable. Legal writing today has largely shed its more florid diction; the difficult task remains how do we capture meaning in the words we do employ.

Sometimes, clarity requires a robust brevity, which is to say that our focus might not only be diction, but also sentence structure (syntax). That should be readily familiar to lawyers: after all, what is statutory interpretation but inexhaustible parsing of words and structure?

In this sense, legal writing is distinct from, say, the journalist’s daily labours. Our writing may come in torrents of momentary genius or on the cusp of a critical deadline. But more often than not, we whittle away at a block of text with careful precision, and spend a considerable amount of time fine tuning the choice and placement of our words.

Legal writing may seem formal, and our critical reasoning cool and detached. Yet the legal reasoning underlying our writing requires empathy and contemplation in order to thrive. Legal writing without those qualities is soulless, and soulless craft should be left to the auditors’ spreadsheets!

Like every craft, written communication is also a reflective exercise. What we produce has an indelible effect on our conscious and unconscious working lives. The trained mind is responsive to an audience’s needs and is, in turn, more critically aware of strategy and argumentation.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the task of writing is not its own end. Legal writing is a means of conveying knowledge and persuasive argument. There is always an audience to inform or convince, whether that person is an officer of the State or the Court, or a layperson.

The quality of our legal writing will determine whether we are up to the task.