Effective Writing Skills for Court: The 10 Commandments
“I have been feeling increasingly competent about my report writing; I am ready to learn more.” Dave proudly and eagerly articulated these words to Karen. “The more feedback I give you on your writing the more I realize you have been working hard to incorporate the concepts we have been reviewing so far. Today, let us discuss the 10 Commandments of effective writing for Court. They will take your report writing to the next level.”
In previous articles, we spent some time discussing the reasons why effective writing skills for Court are crucial, how unknowingly you may be losing your credibility, and what you can do about it. We have also elaborated on the ten answers you need to have before writing any court report, and, just like Karen promised Dave, in this article I am going to outline the 10 Commandments of effective writing for Court, as the next set of instruments for you to have in your toolkit.
Back it up or leave it out
As we discussed in previous articles, the body of your report needs to support your opinion, which in turn needs to be congruent with your recommendations. Further, you need to be thorough in discussing your opinion, ensuring that you leave a balanced taste on your reader’s palate, instead of a one-sided viewpoint. Dave opined that Alejandro was unfit as a father, and he recommended that custody be granted to Alex’s mother, Carmen. Since he had no way of corroborating such a claim, his credibility suffered as a result. He has now learned to either “back it up or leave it out.” This is something to emulate.
Educate and clarify
The Court sees you as both an advocate and as an authority. You are seen as the expert in the field of mental health, child custody, substance use, or your other specific specialty area, and the rest of the Court are usually considered laymen. It is your duty to educate and clarify any concept that may be used incorrectly, especially if it might lead to further biases and stigma. It is also your responsibility to alert the Court of subtle signs of danger that they might be unable to perceive, especially if outside their area of expertise. Dave knew about Carmen’s use of alcohol and cocaine. He knew that she was inviting her friends over to the house to drink and smoke while leaving Alex alone in his room, watching TV. As someone considered an expert by the Court, Dave should have discussed the fact that Alex may be at risk under these circumstances and that further exploration was required to ensure his safety. Dave failed to do so, and Alex ended up in foster care, where he then suffered from both physical and sexual abuse. Educating, clarifying, and helping the Court with a predictive analysis is an essential component of your work and one of the commandments to keep in mind.
Provide enough information to the court
Related to educating and clarifying is providing enough information to the Court, so an informed decision can be made. One school of thought promotes the idea of “the shortest report possible,” while another fosters the idea of “the longest report possible.” However, I encourage you to take the road least travelled; strive for a balanced report, by providing enough information to the Court, not more and not less, just enough. If you have written enough reports, you will realize this is easier said than done, hence the reason for the road least travelled. Nonetheless, there is both an art and a science to it. It requires practice, patience, supervision, and constructive feedback. Dave’s report was rather short. He met with Alex and Carmen, wrote his report and simply thought it was done. The next time you write your report, ask yourself: “Am I providing enough information to the Court?” Then allow yourself to be thoughtful enough to ask: “If I were the judge or the attorney, would the report I have written be enough information for me?” These two questions can serve as a good guide for you.
Conduct the necessary research
This Commandment is related to the need for providing enough information to the Court and for educating and providing clarity. When you write a report, you are not merely a writer, but, in addition to being an advocate and an expert, you are an investigator and a scientist, and you need to behave like one, if you are to be effective and efficient at what you do. The first step is to follow the scientific method in its simplest way possible; start with an observation, construct a hypothesis, do an experiment and proceed to analyze your information, and then draw a conclusion. It is important that you stay away from drawing conclusions straightway after observations. It is equally important that you do not ignore your observations or draw conclusions in your report without taking what you have observed, seen or heard, into account. Dave heard Carmen’s routine around alcohol and cocaine use when Alex was at home - a fact relevant to the issue he was working on. He should have then taken some time, explored further, conducted the necessary research and then followed the scientific method to reach his conclusion.
Create an outline
Writing a report can feel overwhelming to some, especially when you consider the necessity for knowing the issue, obtaining the relevant facts, knowing the relevant legal standards, while also interviewing several parties and reviewing extensive records. Indeed, as Chinese philosopher Laozi stated, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And this single step in your report-writing journey is your outline. Start by writing down the 10 answers you need to have before writing your report, and then proceed with your structure, which will contain your opinion and recommendations. Your outline will help you focus and stay disciplined, specific, and concise. It will also help you with providing enough information and conducting the necessary research. “I never thought an outline would be so helpful. Now that I have been doing it, I have seen a significant difference in both the content and process of my report,” said Dave.
Regardless of what format you choose to follow, be sure to have a well-structured approach. Some essential components of structure include a statement of non-confidentiality, collateral data, reasoning, opinion, and recommendation(s). Many other sections, like mental health, substance use, general medical conditions, developmental and legal history, may add increased weight, based on the issue and the individual. The important thing is for you to structure well and be sure to include all related subheadings. One additional observation about Dave’s report is that he did not have a developed structure. A well-structured report may help you better organize and communicate your thoughts, which is required for a successful product.
Write a clear and a concise report
I cannot emphasize enough the significance of clarity for your reports. They also need to be concise, and, as mentioned above, structuring well can help you with achieving this goal. The other commandments will also help you with clarity and concision, as they are all related. Going forward, if your follow the above commandments: (1) Back it up or leave it out, (2) Educate and clarify, (3) Provide enough information to the Court, and (4) Conduct the necessary research, (5) Create an outline, and (6) Structure well, it will become much less challenging for you to write a clear and concise report. This will add much rigor and will help you separate “significance” from “trends” and “noises.” Dave’s report was far from clear. “Alejandro is unfit to be a father, because he allows Alex, a 6-year-old child to drink coffee, when he visits with him. Visitation rights should be suspended and full custody should be granted to Carmen, Alex’s mother.” This created confusion and damaged his credibility.
Explain any technical language
Have you ever read a legal document that contained so many formal and technical terms that were hard for you to understand? “Void, insolvency, proxy, indemnity.” Well, now that you are working with the Court, you start to take these for granted and start using them, too. Part of clarity is to avoid these terms at all cost. And when it comes to medical terms, be sure to define them, at least, the first time you make use of them, in your report. This also goes for listing and including medications. For example, when you write Haloperidol, add into parentheses, “antipsychotic medication;” Lithium, “mood stabilizer;” Buspar, “anti-anxiety medication.” One positive note on Dave’s report, it was devoid of legalese. When you start working on your next report, remember to explain any of the legalese, jargon, or medical terminology you use.
Formulate your opinion
It is one thing to have an opinion, but it is another thing to formulate it well. As a general rule, you need to formulate your opinion or it will have little weight, and it may damage your credibility. Formulating your opinion involves explaining how you got to it, describing the different dimensions of interest and considering the different relationships among them. Dave did not think of the need to formulate his opinion, but now he knows this is necessary, and he knows how to do it. There are several types of orientations to formulating an opinion. However, for your purpose and your level of expertise, it is essential that you use a bio-psycho-social and cultural framework, which is our 10th and last Commandment of effective writing skills for Court.
Use the Bio-psycho-social and cultural framework
You need to show your expertise in your report. One best way to do so is in the framework you use, and the one that will guarantee you success is the bio-psycho-social and cultural model. Describing or elaborating on this model is not the objective of this article. (I have developed a series of continuing education videos to further support your understanding on this subject). For now, it is important to know that your report, impression, discussion, conclusion, and recommendation(s) all need to follow a bio-psycho-social and cultural framework, if you are to make the most multidimensional, comprehensive, and balanced case possible in your report. Dave did not follow this model; for example, he failed to take into consideration the family dynamics, the possible psychological stress that Alex might have been undergoing or the cultural norms of Alejandro, who is from Colombia, around coffee. Failure to follow a bio-psycho-social and cultural framework will not only prevent you from being effective, but it can also damage your credibility.
“I have been feeling increasingly competent about my report writing. I am ready to learn more,” Dave said to Karen. “What skills have you gained so far?” Karen responded, before introducing him to the 10 Commandments of effective writing skills for Court. “Understanding the why of effective writing skills for Court and the 10 answers needed before writing a report have been invaluable tools. I am also grateful to have a breakdown of the seven reasons concerning why I lost my credibility and the opportunity to work with you to restore it. Learning about the principles and techniques and choosing the right structure for my reports have also been significant for me,” explained Dave, feeling and appearing satisfied.
Dave did it and so can you. Among other skills, you can learn the principles, the techniques, the Do’s and Don’ts of report writing, and you can work with someone who will give you the feedback you need, as did Dave, to become the most competent writer you can be, making the most possible difference in the lives of others, while feeling gratified in your work.
I hope this series of articles has been beneficial to you so far. Many thanks for allowing me on this noble journey with you. I look forward to our next conversation.
Your friend and colleague,
For more in this series of articles, check below!
Cazalet J Re J (Child abuse: expert evidence). FCR 1991:193–227.
The Law Society. Good practice in child care cases. A guide for solicitors acting in Public Law Children Act Proceedings including cases involving adoption. London: The Law Society, 2004.
David TJ, Hershman DA, McFarlane AE. Pretrial liaison between doctors in alleged child abuse. Arch Dis Child 1998;79:205–6.
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.