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3 Hyperbole Mistakes That Only the Worst Lawyers Ever Make

Good legal writing is concise, approachable, objective. In a profession where the written word is central to much of our work, lawyers with well-crafted writing are some of the most effective practitioners.

But sometimes we get carried away in the moment. We want our client to know that this motion for summary judgment is as important as the Gettysburg address, or at least a good Oscar speech; that a denial of our petition would really be an unchecked, Orwellian dictatorship. The problem is, that sort of hyperbole isn't just bad writing and isn't just unconvincing. It actually hurts your case.

You Didn't Really Write That, Did You?

Hyperbole is literally the greatest crime one could ever commit against the written word. That important reminder comes to us from Gary Kinder at WordRake, via the Volokh Conspiracy. Kinder put together a great overview of horrendous legal hyperbole that not even the writer could have thought would be convincing. Some highlights:

  • This is a story of a legal system run amuck, a Kafkaesque demonstration of tyranny given free rein. [The subject? Bolts of cloth.]
  • The Defendant's actions can only be described as economic sodomy. [That is, perfectly legal?]

3 Mistakes to Avoid

So, how can you avoid ending up on the "what not to write" list? Stay away from these three things that tend to push legal over the line from impassioned to laughable:

1. Grandstanding

Remember who you're trying to impress and convince. "Many clients love to see their lawyers use a brief to punch the other guy in the face, the harder the better," Kinder writes. But your audience isn't your client or your own ego; it's the court. Reasoned, persuasive writing, not literary histrionics, will be much more convincing.

2. Overstatement

Don't overstate your case. It's a simple lesson, but one lawyers sometimes forget -- to their own detriment. The problem with overstatement is that it undermines your argument by taking it just a bit too far. A client's business deal gone bad? Call it a breach of contract, sure. Economic sodomy? No.

3. Belligerence

You're writing for the court. Don't insult the court. Hyperbolic attacks on the court or judges, highlighting the grave injustices they have inflicted on your client, aren't going to impress hizzoner. Save those for your press releases, not your court filings.

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