Tip 1 - Place important ideas at the beginning of your document, paragraph and sentence.
Keep suspense for mystery novels and not for legal writing. I have never forgotten these words from my law professor as she struggled to find my conclusions in one of my first law school memos. In essence, I was told to get to the point and do so right away.
This lesson is especially important outside of academia and in legal business where time is precious and expensive. Your reader should never have to dig through your text to find the answers to legal issues. Instead, it is often best to present your conclusions first and then explain how you reached those conclusions afterwards. By doing this, the reader will better process the details because they already know how to fit that information into the proper context.
Placing your most important information first should be done on the document, paragraph, and, at times, the sentence level (and yes, even for Top 10 Tip lists). This means writing strong introductions to your paper, whether it be a client letter or in-house memo; it means writing clear topic sentences for each of your paragraphs and placing them as the first sentence (or second if following a transition); it means often starting off your sentences with key words that further your thesis. It means giving your readers what they want.
A strong introductory paragraph includes the following elements:
1. It states the purpose of the writing;
2. It states the issues addressed and their relative weight, that is, which issues are more important to the reader than others;
3. It states the conclusions of those issues, where relevant; and
4. It states how you will address these issues by giving a 'roadmap' of your writing -- telling the reader in what order you will discuss the information.
Here's an example of a strong introductory paragraph in a memo from an associate to a law partner:
After reviewing Pharmaceutical Client X's data collection policies in clinical trials, I've concluded that the client is in violation of the EU Data Protection Directive. The key issues that pertain to this case are whether the data subjects have a right of access to their personal information, whether there are any security measures in place to protect the data, and whether the processing of their data will be outsourced to third parties. Before discussing these issues in depth, this memo first provides an overview of the Data Protection Directive and then reviews the Directive's overlap with clinical trials regulations. It will then analyze each of the three issues in turn, and concludes with practical information for the client on how it can adapt its policies to comply with the Directive.
Just as important as a good introductory paragraph is the introduction to each and every paragraph of your document, your topic sentences. Strong topic sentences explain what your paragraphs are about and provide a framework for understanding the subsequent supporting information. Thus, following the example above, our next paragraph will begin with something like this:
The EU Data Protection Directive protects people's privacy rights in the processing of their personal information.
The sentences that follow should support that thesis and provide further explanation of the Directive. I'll be discussing the importance of topic sentences in detail when we reach Rule No.5.
Each sentence holds its key points of emphasis at its beginning and end. Therefore, you don't want to bury important information in the middle. Also, most native English speakers tend to place their main points of their sentences at the beginning when they speak, so it is natural that they would better process written information structured in the same way. See the differences between the following examples:
In light of the associate's recent behavior, which includes coming in late, flirting with co-workers, surfing the Internet for the hippest Brussels parties, and lack of personal hygiene, we are terminating his employment at the firm.
We are firing the associate because he comes in late, flirts with co-workers, surfs the Internet for the hippest Brussels parties, and lacks personal hygiene.
In the first example, it takes quite a long time to get to the main point of the sentence: the firing of the associate. The reader has to hold all the information listed in the dependant clause in their short-term memory before reaching the main idea of the sentence. Mentally taxing the reader is not a good idea.
Now, I'm not proposing that your keep your sentences structured identically. (In fact, varying your sentence structure is a good technique in legal writing.) I am proposing that, if you have something important to say, it's a good idea to just come right out and say it first - just as you should with your document, paragraphs, and Top 10 Tip List.