Tuesday, November 3, 2015

By Alvin Yau, 1L

First-year law students were treated to an exceptional guest lecture on Oct. 20th on the art of effective legal writing, given by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice John Laskin, LLB 1969. In a lively event with heartfelt advice and humorous anecdotes shared with the students, Laskin said lawyers need to become better writers.

“We [lawyers, judges, and advocates] often write for ourselves” as opposed to writing for readers, and this is the primary impediment to effective writing for lawyers. “Written advocacy is more important than oral advocacy,” Laskin continued as he recounted some of the many cases he has presided over from the bench. Laskin showed the students a series of written extracts from legal factums which the bench had reviewed. He then went on to share some key insights about how a judge would read and receive this information. A key takeaway of the exercise was that good editing takes time and helps the reader understand main points quickly and effectively. In short, good editing makes sentences succinct since an “understatement always persuades,” said Laskin.

This was just one of many helpful lessons for the students in the audience and it was part of Laskin’s impassioned appeal to seek out the spirit of justice through advocacy. While readers want what Laskin described as “the prime quality” of clarity in writing, the legal system also strives towards achieving justice. In order to fulfill that aspiration, it is critical that future and current lawyers seek to “get the right answer [by…] asking the right question.” Laskin advised students to “look for the deep issue” in every scenario they encounter to develop more precise and better writing.

Good editing makes sentences succinct since an “understatement always persuades,” said Justice J. Laskin.

The evening continued with Laskin sharing some anecdotes from his illustrious legal career as well as his interactions with lawyers who presented cases before his bench. After recounting a particularly funny anecdote of a lawyer who almost “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory” through presumptive and ineffective writing, Laskin went on to affirm the value of a lawyer’s personal reputation.

To Laskin, a reputation is something that is “hard to earn and very easy to lose” and it requires credibility through good personal conduct. After all, judges are people too and when judges “talk amongst themselves” a lawyer’s character and reputation play an important part in rendering a favourable decision for a particular case alongside the facts of the case and the law. Ultimately, this attention to credibility and good reputation helps develop a person into an effective advocate and a good lawyer. While “principles [and facts] persuade,” Laskin continued, credibility can make all the difference when advocating before the bench.

The last lesson of the evening featured Laskin’s perspective on how students and lawyers can better format their writing through a new way of presenting their written work. By putting “context before details” and “[having] the point come first,” Laskin demonstrated through a series of sample written works that the content of a legal argument is not entirely persuasive without effective written style. How lawyers present their submissions in court can earn the respect of judges and their peers, as well as help ensure their client’s case is well-argued.

With verve, humour, and empathy, Laskin’s guest lecture was an impassioned call for future lawyers to ask whether they can “take that brilliant legal analysis and… make your readers understand?”

Said Laskin: “Conciseness is persuasive. It shows that the lawyer has thought through his or her case.”

Watch this space for the video link of the lecture coming soon.