Four Minutes With a Guru: Ross Guberman Edition
I’m a fan of any technology that helps automate brief-writing. So I was delighted recently when I found Bob Ambrogi’s article reviewing three computer programs designed to help writers edit their work. One of these tools is BriefCatch, the creation of legal-writing guru Ross Guberman.
Even if you’re new to legal writing, you’ve probably heard of Ross. For nearly two decades, he’s been writing books and conducting legal-writing workshops from coast to coast.
Ross recently took time from his frenetic schedule to chat with me about his career, his perspective on modern legal writing, and the new BriefCatch 2.0. His story is fun and fascinating.
THP: How did you get started as a legal-writing coach?
RG: After working briefly as a BigLaw associate, I did some investigative journalism, started teaching at GW Law, and drafted appeals briefs for another big firm on a contract basis. A partner at that firm asked me to create a workshop on brief-writing for the associates—and then she shared the going rate for writing consultants! It was an easy sell. I struggled to get traction at first, but once you break into BigLaw, business blossoms. Over time, I added more and more workshops and other services.
THP: Many people know you for your seminars and books. What inspired you to take the leap into software?
RG: Many attorneys who attended my seminars were savvy enough to realize that writing skills need continual reinforcement. For years, I would hear “How do you recommend we put all of this into practice?” And then that morphed into “Can you make a macro or something???” After secretly Googling “macro,” I took the plunge into software. My first attempt was aimed at contract language. I later connected with a developer in the UK. We worked on BriefCatch.com for more than a year until it launched in 2018.
THP: Tell us about BriefCatch 2.0. How does it differ from other software tools like WordRake and Grammarly?
RG: BriefCatch works on most documents, but I designed it especially for judges and lawyers and law students. It offers many flags and checks tailored to legal writing: tone, citations, use of case law, legal language, and consistency, just to name a few.
Unlike some editing products, BriefCatch offers several choices for many edits. Lawyers care about subtle distinctions. BriefCatch also explains the reason for the suggested edits rather than just saying “take it or leave it.” And its AI-driven scoring system lets you match wits with top lawyers and judges.
THP: In what ways do new lawyers struggle with writing?
RG: That’s changed over time. More and more young lawyers, including top graduates from top schools, lack control at the word and sentence level. They are often fast and fluent writers who are adept at research and amassing authorities, but they struggle to turn in polished drafts that don’t require many rounds of editing.
This has coincided with a movement in some legal-writing quarters to disdain core writing skills in favor of broad theories of lawyering and communication and legal writing as a social construct. I meet many young lawyers who feel ill-equipped to handle the writing demands of practice, though law school clinics can sometimes fill the gaps.
THP: How can senior lawyers continue to hone their skills?
RG: For lawyers in private practice, nonbillable work can seem like a nuisance. Yet client alerts and the like are a gold mine for sharpening skills while helping to drum up business. I was intrigued recently to hear a former GC for GE note how repetitive and obtuse many BigLaw alerts can be. I’m not sure senior lawyers realize how hard it is to explain legal developments to the public clearly and authoritatively and to offer a novel or memorable take without seeming like you’re giving legal advice.
For morale and efficiency purposes, I also recommend that senior lawyers learn to distinguish their writing “pet peeves” from their make-or-break priorities and share those distinctions with those whom they supervise.
THP: Which of your books makes you the proudest?
RG: Point Made was a slog to write, but it’s been vital to my career and to my thinking. It helped me develop two principles I’ve tried to stick to: (1) Analyzing short examples of great writing is far more meaningful than describing what to strive for and what to avoid; (2) Great legal writing is what great lawyers and judges DO when they write, not what academics or pundits think they should do.
THP: What’s the best trend in legal writing today? The worst?
RG: The same: judges, particularly federal judges, trying to be more conversational and accessible. This development is good for law students and the public. But “conversational” can quickly descend into “silly” and “snarky.” I worry that lawyers will pluck a witty word or phrase from an opinion and drop it into their own drafts without cultivating the writing style that allows those devices to seem genuine and not contrived.