Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The memo: reader aids

To make the text easier to read and skim, you may decide to break up the formal parts of a memo with numbering and headings. For example, if your memo addresses two issues, you should separate and number the issues. The brief answer or conclusion should then have the same numbering:

    1. Under Federal Rule of Evidence 701 . . . ?

    2. If Rule 701 does not apply, then . . . ?

    Brief Answers

    1. No. Applying Rule 701 will not cause . . .

    2. Probably. If a court decides that Rule 701 does not apply . . .
In my view, to separate and number the questions and then to fail to match that with parallel structure in the brief answer is a serious flaw in a legal memo.

You may also use headings to separate and organize the discussion section of a memo. In fact, the longer and more complex the discussion, the more important it is to use headings to help the reader. Remember, the reader of a legal memo is usually busy and is often skimming the memo for key information. Headings will make that easier.

I suggest short, topic headings for major sections of the discussion. For example, in a memo addressing an issue that requires you to report on federal and state enactments as well as state case law, you might use these topic headings:
  1. Federal regulations
  2. Texas statutes
  3. Texas case law
I suggest longer, explanatory headings for subtopics and subissues within larger topics and issues. In fact, you may write explanatory headings that are complete sentences:
  1. Minors over age 14 are held to an adult standard for negligence and can be held negligent per se.

  2. Minors under 14 are not held to an adult standard for negligence and are not held negligent per se.
Two things to remember: First, you can overuse headings and make the document cluttered. I have seen a legal memo in which every paragraph in the discussion had a heading. When every paragraph is emphasized in this way, nothing stands out. Second, you can underuse headings and leave the reader to negotiate long blocks of text. The goal is in the middle: enough headings to ease the reader's way but not so many you clutter up the text.

Better Legal Writing
Writing for the Legal Audience

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