Oregon State Bar Bulletin — AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2009
The Legal Writer
Lessons from the Magic Kingdom:
A Legal Writer Reflects on Summer Vacation
By Rebekah Hanley

There I am, racing through Adventureland on foot. I have left my mother and my child in Fantasyland, where they will experience Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through a 4-year-old’s eyes, while I retrieve coveted Fastpasses for Splash Mountain. In my first quiet(ish) moment alone of the day, my mind drifts to legal writing. Honestly.

Why? The parallels may not be immediately obvious, but a reader’s experience with a piece of legal writing is like a tourist’s experience visiting Disneyland. Or, at least, it should be. Here’s what Disney and legal writers can learn from each other.

Provide a Good Hook
An effective introduction includes a book that captures the reader’s attention and makes her want to keep digging in after the first sentence.

I missed this at Disneyland. Upon arrival, I followed blinking signs to mysterious properties staffed by Disney-uniformed cast members. On two days of visits, I landed in two different lots. Each day, I wandered, looking for the transportation to the park; I stood in line, waiting for a tour bus; I gasped, breathing bus exhaust while others loaded strollers into the luggage compartment and boarded; I sat, inching through the same traffic I had endured before I parked; and then I studied, trying to memorize where I needed to go at the end of the day to catch the correct bus to the correct lot.

Effective legal writers know better than to put their readers through an experience (or a sentence) like that as a lead up to the main event. Did I want to dig in? No, I wanted to flee. Of course, I didn’t. Remember, I had a 4-year-old with me!

Then Provide a Summary
Disney improved dramatically after that disappointing introduction. How could it not?

The first attraction guests bump into after walking through the turnstile is the Disneyland Railroad. My family jumped on this train and circumnavigated the entire park, getting the lay of the land. While we rode, we planned how we would negotiate the various lands during our stay. Not all visitors use this tool, but it can be a very effective orientation for those who do.

Similarly, not everyone will read a “Brief Answer” or “Summary of Argument” section, but a legal writer is wise to include one in case the reader wants a quick overview before tackling the issues in detail. A summary can orient the reader, help her decide which parts of the document to read first and give her a sense of where she’ll need to spend the most time as she reads.

Consider the Audience
Audience awareness and sensitivity are key in theme parks and in legal writing.

Disney simultaneously satisfies many distinct audiences, delivering magic to them all. It brightens young children’s eyes, and it gets parents and grandparents to smile when this happens. It provides teenagers with safe thrills. And it helps honeymooners celebrate their unions. Everyone at Disneyland can find something to enjoy: wild rides or calm rides; old attractions or new attractions; passive activities or participatory ones.

Admittedly, this “something for everyone” multiplicity can be hard to mimic in legal writing. Still, legal writers should consider the various readers who may review their work. They may need to balance the needs and expectations of a supervising lawyer (or two), a client and a court. The supervisor may expect a detailed explanation, while the client may believe that a less comprehensive approach will suffice. How does the legal writer balance those competing demands with the (presumed) needs of the ultimate audience: a busy jurist and her staff? It’s tricky, but discussing the project’s goals and articulating the reasons behind each writing decision can help. Good judgment, trust and the ability to compromise come with experience.

Make That Audience’s Job Easy
A legal writer should do whatever she can to help the reader breeze through her writing.

Disney does many things with this same goal in mind. First, Disney is organized; it groups its attractions by category, like adventure, fantasy or future. Second, Disney provides guests with a park map when they arrive. This convenient visual aid helps visitors find what they need, as do the large, clear signs and approachable, friendly cast members throughout the park.

Legal writers should be similarly organized and user-focused. First, they should present their arguments in logical sequences and group related ideas in well-formed paragraphs. Second, like Disney, they should provide readers with a map upon arrival by including an accurate table of contents for a long work. Roadmaps, point headings, topic sentences and transitions throughout memoranda and briefs also help orient the reader while she walks through the document; they are the legal writer’s visible signs and outgoing cast members.

Critically Evaluate Work Product from the Audience’s Perspective
During my recent visit, I noticed that Disneyland no longer has some of the rides I recall from my childhood. Rocket Rods has replaced the PeopleMover and Star Tours has replaced Adventure Thru Inner Space. The Skyway gondola lift is also gone. These attractions were once exciting, but they became dull and dated; I think the gondola may have presented safety and accessibility concerns as well. Disney’s own critical assessment of its operations must have led to these improvements. Nice work, Disney.

Writers should be using the same process to evaluate their work after they write it but before they submit it. Sure, drafting that paragraph took a lot of time. But does the audience really need it to understand the law or the argument based on it? The detailed description of the entire procedural history of the case was carefully crafted. Is it all relevant to the specific matter at hand? If not, the writer should cut it out. The reader will appreciate that.

For Persuasive Writing, Incorporate a Compelling Theme
Disney — the ultimate theme park — definitely has legal writers beat on this one. The whole park is “the happiest place on earth” and “the place where dreams come true.” Each section of the park has its own sub-theme, too. Those themes unify the attractions, the retail, the entertainment and the concessions in the area. The details — all consistent with the theme — convince visitors that they are not in present-day Anaheim, Calif., but rather some other time and place. They persuade.

A legal writing theme can have the same persuasive effect on a reader. While writers explore the legal issues and explain the legal arguments, they should subtly remind readers what’s at stake in the controversy. Is this case about sustaining the local economy? Is it about respect for criminal defendants’ constitutional rights? In short, the most effective legal writers give the decision-maker a reason to want to interpret the law in the manner urged.

And in Persuasive Writing, Exploit Positions of Emphasis
This may be where legal writers can learn the most from Disney. Long ago, I heard that Disney directed food aromas to ride exits. Genius! A guest just finished one activity, and she’s starting to think about what to do next. She breathes in and thinks, “Let’s grab a snack. Where are the $10 hot dogs?”

I didn’t notice any strategically placed food odors during my summer visit, but I did find that as I exited attractions, I was flung into retail stores with merchandise to match. Disney and my son conspired to convince me that we shouldn’t go home with just one souvenir — we needed one souvenir per ride. That’s worse than a $10 hot dog; I had to drag those trinkets around for the rest of the day and then load them onto the bus to get them to my car.

Similar sales opportunities appear throughout legal briefs. They are positions of emphasis, and legal writers should exploit them. These positions include point headings; the beginning and end of each section, subsection and paragraph; and short sentences, paragraphs and sections. That’s where the audience is paying the most attention. Thoughtful writers put their best material in those locations to make an impact and to sell the audience on their ideas.

Enjoy the Experience
Perhaps the least conspicuous but most important parallel between Disneyland and legal writing is that both present opportunities to have fun. I mean it.

Clearly, a visit to Disneyland is playtime. But that visit probably requires plenty of work, too, especially if you are chasing a 4-year-old. Mine did.

Legal writing may be how lawyers earn a living, but think about all the excitement and rewards that are involved. Lawyers hunt for treasure: the most helpful facts and legal authorities. Lawyers use creativity to weave those facts and authorities together and to express arguments in a compelling manner. Lawyers help clients solve problems. Sometimes, they get the satisfaction of reading opinions that incorporate their analysis. What a rollercoaster! What thrills! Enjoy!


Rebekah Hanley teaches Legal Research and Writing at the University of Oregon School of Law. Her email address is rhanley@uoregon.edu. She appreciates Suzanne Rowe’s contributions to this article.

© 2009 Rebekah Hanley

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