Make sure that your roots are deep.
Continuing on my recent theme of drawing life lessons from random flora and fauna, today I want to direct your attention to the potato, and why it should be your spirit vegetable whenever you do legal writing.
Potatoes, of course, are one — and very possibly the — great root vegetable of world culture. They are a healthy staple food which, after originating in South America, has now spread throughout the world. Today, they are not limited to the Western world, but are grown throughout the world and serve as a basic ingredient in many cuisines, with China currently growing 27% of the world’s supply. They are flexible and a key ingredient in everything from French fries to chips, from baked potatoes to vindaloo, and who can ignore poutine.
But beyond their flexibility, one of the defining traits of potatoes is that they are root vegetables. Like the stereotypical iceberg, most of a potato is underground. Above ground, indeed, a potato looks much like any other plant. And that is very important — without the above ground part, it would be hard to pull the potato out of the ground — but below ground is where the most important parts lie, which you can eat. A potato with only roots is impractically difficult to eat, but a potato with only the leafy part is pretty much useless.
Good legal writing is the same. It’s of course very important to have the surface of argument and presentation: You want someone to read what you write and be convinced. But you also need to be ready for them to dig deeper. And when they dig deeper, it’s crucial that they find that the root is good quality. You want a reader who pulls into your cases or considers your arguments to feel confident that you have put in more thought than them.
Anything else fries your credibility. If a reader digs into one of your arguments and finds that your arguments weren’t well-supported or thought out, they’re unlikely to trust much else of what you say. But the reverse is also true: if they start going through and see that everything is well-supported, then they will likely trust you more.
This applies to all sorts of work products you may produce. Briefs, of course, but also any chart, exhibit, or letter. Some thoughtful formatting will reassure your readers that the rest is sound as well.
So next time you pick up your keyboard to write something out, think carefully about the potato and remember its lessons, and with luck, it will carry you as far as the potato itself has reached.
Matthew W. Schmidt has represented and counseled clients at all stages of litigation and in numerous matters including insider trading, fiduciary duty, antitrust law, and civil RICO. He is a partner at the trial and investigations law firm Balestriere Fariello in New York, where he and his colleagues represent domestic and international clients in litigation, arbitration, appeals, and investigations. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.