Effective Writing Skills for Court: 7 Reasons Why
“I want to make a difference in the world and in people’s lives. I am a social worker; I am an advocate.” Jackie articulated these words in response to the question: “What motivates you?”
After her social work schooling, Jackie started working with attorneys and the court, writing mitigation reports, advocating for justice-involved individuals with mental illness - a distinguished way for her to make an impact.
However, two years later, she met with one of her mentors, to whom she said: “I no longer know how much of a difference I am really making in people’s lives. Things look different now, and I am still trying to understand why.”
Just like you, Jackie is still a fierce advocate, with the same burning desire to “make a difference in the world and in the lives of others.” However, much of Jackie’s advocacy effort is done through report writing for court, which is also the tool used to measure her success as an advocate. She often wonders what positive outcomes her reports have truly had for her clients or if there have been any negative outcomes. Report writing skills for court were never formally taught to Jackie, neither in school nor at work, although it is an essential competency in her field, especially as she strives to make a difference in people’s lives. With the right training, learning to write effectively for court can be rewarding. And below are the 7 reasons why this expertise it crucial.
From a Client’s Perspective
1. Effective and Persuasive Advocacy
Jackie was spending countless hours working on her reports, but few of these efforts were translating to positive outcomes for her clients. Joel, a 21-year-old client, deserved a second chance. Jackie knew it and her supervisor agreed, but she was unable to demonstrate why or persuasively and effectively advocate for him.
Do you want to ensure that your efforts translate into positive outcomes for your clients? Learning and mastering effective writing skills for court can tremendously enhance the end results of your endeavor.
2. Comprehensive and Linear Recommendations
Jackie often made recommendations that, in court, were found to be far from practical; they were not appropriately tailored and did not take into account the client’s circumstances. Jackie’s recommendations tended to be overly broad; she neglected to follow a sequential approach, and she was also unsuccessful at providing the assurance needed for the court to approve them. Some of Jackie’s proposals, initially accepted by the court, eventually often failed to help her clients succeed, because she had not crafted them by following the principles of making recommendations - a vital ingredient in effective writing skills for court.
From a Clinician and Advocate Perspective
3. Career Gratification
Jackie started her career with drive, optimism, and passion, determined to make a difference. While she still possessed enough drive, Jackie questioned the effectiveness and result of her undertaking. Her career stopped feeling as gratifying and she wondered why. Jackie enjoyed working with this population, with her co-workers, clinicians, advocates, attorneys and court staff. Yet, the meaning of her work had gradually been fading. Career gratification often requires competency, continued skill building, seeing the results of your work, and subjective and objective evidence that you are making a difference. Effective report writing is one of these proficiencies that can help heighten your advocacy success, which in turn will fortify your career gratification.
4. Burnout Prevention
Burnout can go hand in hand with career gratification. However, burnout is more likely to occur when there is limited knowledge, guidance, and skill. The reverse is also true. When you know the principles, techniques and guidelines required for your work, you feel empowered, more in control, and are less likely to be overwhelmed, as a result. You are also more able to discern when a negative outcome is related to your individual limited skill or to the generally accepted limitation of the field. When Jackie started working in Mitigation, she took time to adjust and learn as much as she could and remain patient until she got the right “grip of things.” Two years later, she no longer found her work to be gratifying and was experiencing burn out. There is a multitude of factors that contribute to burnout, and limitations in knowledge, guidance, and skill, are some of these essential components. Burnout prevention is one of the reasons why learning, mastering, and sharpening your skills for effective writing related to court and advocacy for your clients and patients is so important. You will be pleased with the results.
From a Client, Clinician or Advocate, Agency, and System, Perspective
Eighteen months after Jackie started working in Mitigation, she got subpoenaed and was required to testify in court about a client for whom she had written a report. At first, Jackie was panic stricken, but her concerned supervisor spent ample time, supporting and guiding her through the process. Claude, the General Counsel of the agency also got involved, as quickly as possible, “There are potential liabilities. We need to review all reports and prepare you as well as possible. ”Multiple discrepancies were found, opinions were ill structured and the reports were hard to follow. Jackie was doing her best, the best that she could, but she did not know how to bridge the gap between what she knew and what she did not know. Jackie did not even fully understand the extent of what she did not know. This further increases liabilities for you as a clinician and advocate, and for your agency as a whole.
6. Public Safety
Jackie was subpoenaed and asked to appear in court to testify about Guerson, whom she had evaluated. Guerson, at that time, had a charge of sexual harassment of a minor. This was his first criminal offense; he was intoxicated and had a history of sexual abuse as a child. In Jackie’s report, the risk assessment, the predictive factor analysis and mitigating plan were all lacking. In fact, upon meeting with a third party forensic psychiatrist, Jackie confessed that she did not know how to conduct any of these essential aspects of an evaluation that was required before making recommendations to the court. Only 5 days after release, Guerson returned home, sexually abused Pat, his 7-year-old stepdaughter, and, this time, his use of force against Pat’s resistance resulted in a traumatic brain injury. As a result, Pat remained unconscious for four days and spent two months in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU). As clinicians and advocates, we ought to balance what’s best for our clients and patients with the need for public safety. Taking into consideration public safety when we advocate for our clients and patients does not make us less caring, less humane, or even less of an advocate; on the contrary, it makes us more responsible and effective advocates. The best way to prove this balance is through effective writing skills, showing objectivity, despite our biases, and demonstrating that our opinions and recommendations are made after careful consideration of the totality of the case, including the public safety component.
Jackie was put on the stand. She declared under oath that she failed to take into consideration the element of public safety in her report. She was a fierce advocate and thinking about anyone else was considered to be a betrayal of her client whom she was to be solely focusing on. With a deeper review of her outlines, she failed to use the principle of attribution. Several subsections and main sections were missing, and several new concepts found in her opinion section were barely mentioned in the main segments of her writing. The opposing counsel found several inconsistencies in her summaries, and the judge concluded that the credibility of Jackie’s reports deemed questioning.
You do not know when you might be subpoenaed, when your reports might be scrutinized or when they may become the decision-making factor in court and regarding someone’s life. When so much is at stake, so is your credibility and that of your agency. It does often become too late at this point, and the only solution is a preventive one: learning and mastering effective writing skills for court. Whether you have been writing for court for 1, 5, 20 or even 30 years, I invite you to stop and ponder.
What am I doing well; what do I need to improve; how do I know the difference; and what types of resources might be available?
These simple questions may make a difference in your court writing skills, your career, your work with your clients and patients, and in your career gratification and burnout prevention. They will also help you prevent liabilities and promote public safety while being the most effective and persuasive advocate possible.
Two years later, Jackie replaced these inspiring 22 words with,
Jackie’s mentor suggested she attend seminars on writing for court, which she did. Her advocacy efforts then became more effective and persuasive; her recommendations became more comprehensive and linear; and she and her reports started to gain more credibility. She also started to better address the ramifications in the areas of liabilities and public safety; and her level of burnout significantly decreased, and she has been able to gain back her career gratification.
Do you want to make a difference in the lives of others? If, like Jackie, you once struggled to see the results of your efforts, or you would like to enhance your advocacy skills, learning and mastering effective writing skills for court will make a significant difference in your career. You, your client, your agency, and the system, as a whole, will highly benefit from your skills.
For more in this series of articles, check below!
Dr. Sidor is quadruple board certified in psychiatry, with board certification in General adult, Child and adolescent, Addiction, and Forensic, psychiatry. He also has additional training in public psychiatry, in several treatment modalities, in addition to his teaching, supervision, mentorship, coaching, and management, experience. Some of his passions are public speaking, leadership, entrepreneurship, and research, in addition to program development and project management. His overall goal is to empower all health care professionals throughout the United States and globally, towards ensuring the continuity of excellent patient care, while balancing the need to take care of themselves. Dr. Sidor is the main instructor for the SWEET Institute, and he is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University. He is also the past-Medical Director for CASES (Center for Alternative Sentencing and employment Services), and he speaks and writes fluently in six (4) languages—French, English, Spanish, Creole, and has intermediate proficiency in Portuguese and Italian.
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