Legal Writing as a Genre

What do Lord Denning and John Grisham have in common? They are both well read authors, just in different genres.

Cambridge Dictionary defines a genre as: “a ​style, ​especially in the ​arts, that ​involves a ​particular set of ​characteristics.” Legal writing involves its own set of characteristics, marked by an impersonal voice with an appeal to the authorities that came before it.

In “Copyright Originality and Judicial Originality”, Simon Stern writes that:

It is hardly news that legal writing is embedded in a network of precedent, formulas, and boilerplate, that it reflects a general preference for the tried and true over the novel, and that it routinely depends on practices – verbatim repetition of others’ words, adoption of others’ prose and arguments …

In the world of commercial publishing, copying (even if properly attributed) may lead to complaints that a work is unacceptably derivative. By contrast, judicial writing – especially at the trial level – seeks to produce derivative work. And whereas unattributed copying is normally equated with plagiarism and is seen as an attempt to claim undue credit, various forms of unattributed copying are taken for granted in judicial writing, where the authorship function is oriented not around credit so much as responsibility.

Furthermore, Stern argues that legal writing is its own way of thinking.

Ronald Kellogg, a leading scholar in the field of writing and cognitive psychology, summarizes a widely held view when he observes, ‘Writing not only demands thinking; it is a means of thinking . . . By writing about a subject, one learns what one thinks about the subject.’