December 2019 Dear Counsel - Advice for Writing and Problem-Solving

by Neil Pedersen

Neil Pedersen recently was the featured speaker at the OCBA’s New Attorney Academy: Hit the Floor Running—Practical Advice for New Attorneys. In this column, he responds to questions asked by newer lawyers about becoming better attorneys.

Q: As a new attorney, I want to become a better legal writer. Do you have some tips I can use to develop better writing skills?

A: All attorneys should strive to improve their legal writing skills throughout their careers. Your writing skills will make you a better communicator and a better advocate. At the core of this ability is logical organization. Learning to craft your writing in an order that develops your position one step at a time.

Short sentences are powerful. Longer sentences diminish the message. They make it more difficult for the reader to gather one thought before moving on to the next. Therefore, avoid long, complex sentences with several dependent and independent clauses. Work at reducing the number of words you use. Fewer is better. More is worse.

Similarly, frequent paragraph breaks and subheadings make it easier for the reader to follow along. A page with one or two long paragraphs is far more difficult to read than one with several paragraph breaks. You want your writing to be inviting to the reader.

Building your vocabulary is an effective way to become a better writer. I am not advocating pedanticism. However, choosing the right word can add power to your writing. The more words in your vocabulary, the greater ability you have to communicate precisely what you wish to relate. There are many ways to build a better vocabulary, including doing crossword puzzles in your spare time or simply reading books.

Locate and nurture a writing mentor—someone who will read and critically assess your writing. You will not improve your writing if you do not work at it. Having someone provide you with constructive criticism will allow you to improve more quickly. Similarly, it is a good idea to have someone proofread your work. You do not want silly typos to detract from your message.

The book Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick is a must-have resource for all legal writers. Buy it, put it on your desk, and use it until you have put its teachings to memory. It will train you to eliminate noise words and phrases, along with stilted language and legalese. It should be on your desk, right next to your dictionary, your thesaurus, and your citation manual.

Finally, as you read interesting and persuasive language in other people’s work, steal it. I am not advocating plagiarism. I am suggesting you learn from other good writers. Borrow phrases you find to be uniquely suited to communicate certain thoughts. Place these phrases in a file to use as needed at a later date. Over your career, you will find you will eventually gather dozens of interesting ways to communicate particular thoughts in your war-chest of powerful phrases. Your writing will be more interesting and persuasive through your use of those phrases, as appropriate.

Q: What advice do you have about developing myself to be a better legal counselor for my clients?

A: An attorney’s job ends up being about problem identification and problem solving. The better we get at these fundamental skills, the better we will be as legal counselors. That starts with knowing your role. You are not simply a repository of legal concepts and a scrivener. You will wear three important hats: a potential problem identifier, an actual problem identifier, and a problem solver.

Potential problem identifiers get good at seeing what could happen in the future. You do that through reading and experience—reading about other relationships that ended in disputes, and recalling your own experiences. Eventually, you become very good at predicting the possible future in any given situation.

Actual problem identifiers are skilled at defining the scope and genesis of a dispute. These counselors are students of human nature and understand what is at the heart of a disagreement. The better you get at deciphering the real reasons for a dispute, and the true scope of the battle, the better you will be at finding a resolution.

If you recognize your role and work at understanding your practice area, you will become a far more valuable counselor for your client.

Another important decision-making skill to develop is to be able to step back from the problem to view it from a forest, instead of a tree, perspective. As attorneys, it is our job to look at every problem from a larger perspective. This discipline is not easily developed, but is critical to our mission as counselors.

Equally important is not to let someone else’s panic, frustration, or anger influence your approach to problem solving. As often as a client or boss would want you to get something done yesterday, you cannot let their pressure to act quickly affect the deliberate approach you have to analyze a situation. One of the best things you can provide for a client is cold, objective reasoning and unemotional advice.

A good decision-maker quickly develops an ability to “think outside the box,” or see more than one way to resolve a problem. Problem solving is an art that you can develop. Most disputes focus on money, but in many situations, non-money solutions—even if not exclusive in nature—can make resolution possible. Become good at seeing alternative solutions and you will be a very valuable counselor for your client.

Neil Pedersen is Principal of Pedersen Law APC, an Orange County employee rights firm, and he created and has taught a law school course over the last eight years entitled Law Practice Management and Technology at Western State College of Law. Neil also is the 2019 Harmon G. Scoville Honoree. He can be reached at npedersen@pedersenlaw.com.

Dear Counsel is an occasional advice column where seasoned attorneys are asked to respond to questions from associates. Please email questions to gialisa@gmail.com for possible inclusion in a future column. You may also mail questions anonymously to Orange County Lawyer, c/o G. Gaffaney, P.O. Box 6130, Newport Beach, CA 92658. By submitting a question, you release copyright claims and consent to editing the question for brevity or clarity. The OCL Editorial Advisory Committee has sole discretion over which questions to feature in a future issue. Responses are personal opinions, and are offered as such; no legal advice shall be construed from any such column.