What to do fourth in editing a legal brief

We have already discussed the first three steps in brief-editing: getting the main message clear, making your sections advance your argument, and making your paragraphs work within their sections.

Once you have gotten this far in the editing process, your brief is clear, focused, and effective. It delivers a simple and persuasive message immediately and then develops that message in a logical and compelling way throughout. All the parts of the brief work together harmoniously to this end.

Now is the time for the level of editing that most lawyers start with: the line-edit. Here, you look for typos, punctuation errors, and inelegant phrasing. You delete jargon, shorten lengthy sentences, and make sure that terms and ideas unfamiliar to the judicial reader who will be reading them for the first time are clearly explained. Editing at this level takes skill and intelligence, but not much in the way of legal acumen; you’ve already honed the legal argument in the first three steps. Everyone in the firm should be a competent line-editor, regardless of their level of experience, because this is a skill that any college graduate should be able to master.

One advantage of saving line-editing for last is that you don’t waste time honing sentences that won’t survive in the final version. It is extremely common for lawyers to blue-pencil a sentence two or three times before finally noticing that the whole paragraph the sentence is within is about a tangential matter that doesn’t advance the brief at all and striking it out. The real risk of line-editing first, though, is not wasting some time—it is thinking that you are done because you’ve made the sentences prettier without ever making sure that they belong there in the first place. Since you did the first three steps first, you won’t have that problem.

There is one more thing to do to make your brief perfect before filing: polish the formatting and typography. How to do this is addressed in other posts, but your firm should have standards about formatting and typography that make this step easy and automatic.

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  1. The other danger in line editing before you have rigorously developed and reviewed the argument is that you will hesitate to delete that gem of a sentence or paragraph you have spent so much time polishing.

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