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Commentary: Be nice, clear, and concise

By Timothy Sansone, Sandberg Phoenix//September 13, 2023

Timothy Sansone

Timothy Sansone

Commentary: Be nice, clear, and concise

By Timothy Sansone, Sandberg Phoenix//September 13, 2023

In the realm of law, where precision and persuasion walk hand-in-hand, the art of effective communication through writing stands paramount.

Whether it’s a letter to a client, an e-mail to a colleague, a motion, a brief or anything else that involves writing, the principles of clarity and concision in communication are the bedrock upon which successful legal writing is built.

This column aims to illuminate the significance and value of these principles, providing practical guidance to lawyers to enhance their writing prowess across various contexts, whether writing to a client, colleague, judge, or any other reader.

Understanding and Respecting Your Audience

Every piece of writing serves a distinct purpose, and its effectiveness hinges on understanding and respecting the audience it addresses.

Whether your reader is a client seeking advice, a colleague collaborating on a project or a judge evaluating your arguments, tailoring your language and style to the particular reader’s level of familiarity with legal concepts is essential.

Starting Strong: Purpose

Begin with something that outlines what the document aims to achieve. This approach immediately orients the reader and sets the context.

How many times have you received an e-mail and have no idea why you are even receiving it?  Judges and law clerks often feel the same way when starting to read documents they receive.

If by the end of the first sentence or paragraph (depending on the length of the communication) the reader does not have a grasp of what your case or issue is about and why you are seeking the reader’s attention, you are already failing in the art of effective communication.

Staying on Target: Summary

After providing your reader that quick orientation, provide a summary of the document’s key points. Such a preview primes the reader, ensuring the person knows what to anticipate. Depending on the audience and the type of communication, a sentence or one short paragraph should suffice.

Why a summary?

In the context of litigation, consider the number of cases a judge already has on the docket. You (hopefully) know your case very well, but to the judge it could be one of hundreds. What is this matter about, why are you asking for the judge’s time and what do you want?

In the context of day-to-day interactions, consider the number of e-mails you, your colleagues, and your clients receive in one day. Yours may be one of more than 100. Also consider whether each person receiving or copied on the e-mail actually needs to receive it.  Do you really need to press “Reply All”?

Staying Sharp

Clarity just makes everyone’s job easier.

Trimming redundant words and phrases not only sharpens your message but also respects the reader’s time. For instance, “in spite of the fact that” can be streamlined to “although,” or even simply “though.” The phrase “in order to” can almost always be shortened: just use “to.”

On the flip side, think carefully about using acronyms. Unless the acronym is nearly universal (such as “FBI”), you may be surprised how many people will not instantly recognize one when they see it. Spell it out the first time.

In addition, lengthy paragraphs or long sections of a motion or brief can overwhelm readers. Opt for shorter paragraphs to enhance readability. Each paragraph should encapsulate a single idea, making it easier for the reader to grasp the essence. A paragraph that takes up more than half a page is usually longer than it needs to be.


By the same token, a section that goes on for more than two or three pages without a heading or signpost can lead the reader to ask, “Where are we now? Where are we going with this? How much longer?”

In this regard, think of a roadmap: What is a map’s purpose? We use it to navigate unfamiliar terrain. Similarly, in legal writing, effective signposting acts as a guide, ensuring your reader remains on track. Use descriptive headings to break down complex documents into manageable sections. Each heading should provide a glimpse into the content that follows and enables the reader to locate specific information swiftly.

Also, using transitional words and phrases like “in addition,” “moreover,” and “conversely” will act as signposts, leading the reader from one idea to the next.


In a world flooded with information, brevity and clarity are virtues. The adage “less is more” finds resonance in legal writing. Whether communicating with clients, colleagues or courts, the above principles offer a reliable compass for all lawyers seeking to elevate their writing game.

By respecting your audience, embracing brevity, mastering the art of signposting and crafting purposeful openings, your writing resonates with power and persuasiveness.

Timothy Sansone is co-chair of The Missouri Bar’s Appellate Practice Committee.

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