What to get the legal writer who has everything

This year Santa dropped off an immense summary judgment brief just in time for the holidays-a great excuse to stay indoors and a chance to test out some technological assists for busy writers. Readers, may I introduce WordRake and BriefCatch, two plug-ins for Microsoft Word.

First, WordRake, available at WordRake.com. After a two-week free trial you may subscribe for one to three years, with the least expensive option (Word only, 1 year) at $129 and the most expensive (Word + Outlook for 3 years) totaling $399.

WordRake is an all-purpose editing tool. It will proofread your writing (including Outlook emails!) and use Word's "Track Changes" function to propose edits. You accept or reject those changes using Track Changes. It's designed to help all writers (not just lawyers) produce short, clear, readable sentences, which it does with speed and grace.

I sicced WordRake on my draft opposition brief and liked the results. WordRake discovered plenty of fat in my flabby sentences-"At the time" became "when," "a couple of" became "two," "more than" became "over," "take a look" became "look," "for the purpose of" became "to." Opening phrases ("At this point," "As it happened," "There is no dispute that") and adverbs were marked for termination with extreme prejudice. WordRake is fast and no-nonsense: it hunted through a 15,000-word brief and had edits plated up and ready to serve in a matter of minutes-a great gift to those of us who suffer from both logorrhea and procrastination.

WordRake does have a few quirks. It will propose changes to quotations, so keep clear of the "accept all changes" option. It focuses relentlessly on word count, occasionally at slight cost to clarity. It prefers simple past tense verbs (which are short) to longer progressive or conditional verb tenses, which may elide nuance or create ambiguity (for example, the difference between "began reading" and "read"). WordRake doesn't always appreciate context: for "is consistent with," WordRake proposed a single option, "follows," which sometimes made sense and sometimes didn't. WordRake marks "that" for deletion far too often, in my opinion (but I'm a lawyer). It also skews informal ("that is what they wrote down" becomes "they wrote down that") which may not be every writer's cup of eggnog.

Next up is BriefCatch, available at (wait for it) BriefCatch. com. After a two-week free trial it costs $240/year. BriefCatch was created by legal writing coach Ross Guberman, author of Point Made and Point Taken and founder of LegalWritingPro. Full disclosure: I'm a fan of Ross's work and have worked on projects with him; naturally I wondered what it would be like to have his AI-double living in my very own version of Word.

BriefCatch is made for lawyers and designed as a teaching tool once it's caught your mistakes, it walks you through them sentence by sentence, with commentary. Here's my first sentence: "Defendants' summary-judgment brief reads like a closing argument to a jury, taking disputed facts and drawing inferences entirely in Defendants' favor." WordRake passed that sentence without comment. But BriefCatch highlighted entirely and favor, admonishing, "Cut needless adverbs. And don't set the bar higher than you need to." For each issue, it proposed a standard menu: Change, ignore, ignore all, and next. Ross is right, so I choose "change" (notably "change all" is not an option). I move on. Two sentences later: "As there are sharp disputes about what actually happened . . . ." Again: "Cut needless adverbs." Sure, Ross, fine. Change.

Then the Gubermachine blows my mind. At the end of the sentence it makes another catch: "The document generally includes two spaces after a period or full stop, but here you have one." Wait, what? BriefCatch caught a deviation from my usual typing, delivered without judgment about whether one space or two spaces is correct. Flesh-and-blood editors (including myself) should be as respectful. A few sentences later: "Summary judgment should be denied and this matter should proceed to trial." Vigilant for long words with shorter alternatives, BriefCatch suggests that "proceed to" ought to be "go on to" or "go to." I hesitate-the rhythm of proceed pleases me-but short words are sweeter. Six changes accepted and we're still on page 2.

What else did BriefCatch catch? Surplus words, as in WordRake, and more: long sentences; sentences written in the passive voice; inconsistent Oxford or serial commas (again, nonjudgmentally); inconsistent quotation marks; use of exact dates; inconsistent articles ("the Plaintiff" versus "Plaintiff"); capitalization of "court"; opportunities to summarize block-quoted material; "and/or"; and of course, glitches such as misplaced commas (instead "takes a comma at the start of a sentence"). BriefCatch offered lots of input on word choice ("'Indicate'" is vague. Strive for something more precise.") When I used "speak further" it suggested "speak any more" and advised me to "relax the diction." (Yes, really. I got that one several times.) It also caught paragraphs with five or more cases, hinting that "many lawyers include too many cases" and urging me to cut citations (never!).

Where did BriefCatch hang up? Occasionally it suggested Oxford commas when I wasn't making a list. It wanted me to split verb phrases to sound more natural (probably good advice but I wasn't ready to go there). Sometimes it got wigged out by citations to the record and confused them with very long sentences. Once it proposed a weird subjunctive verb that sounded goofy. It didn't think much of my use of en-dashes to indicate page ranges but asked politely: "Did you mean to have an em dash" as opposed to "Em dash, dummy!" Perhaps some impatient writers might find it passive-aggressive to ask, "Do you need this exact date? Needless dates distract readers. Or try language such as 'three days later'"-but if what you want is timely guidance and motivation to improve, BriefCatch delivers.

BriefCatch's best feature is also its biggest challenge: it is built not just to edit, but to teach you how to edit. Because BriefCatch insists at every step on teaching you to write better, edits take much longer than in WordRake (procrastinators beware!). Think of it as a coaching class with a master writer looking over your shoulder, proposing edits in real time, and explaining what the choices are and how they work. BriefCatch offers you scores and also a narrative report explaining specific strengths and weaknesses of your writing.

Will BriefCatch replace flesh-and-blood legal writing columnists? Only time will tell. Until then, happy new year!

Published: Wed, Jan 09, 2019

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