Using Scrivener for your Legal Brief

I know, I know: the first question you’re probably thinking is why not just use Microsoft Word?

After all, Word files are the de-facto standard, and your professor (or hopefully in the future, the judge) will expect you to turn in your brief as a Word document or a PDF file.

While Microsoft Word is great for letters and short documents, if you try to jump around in a longer document, you’ll quickly get frustrated. God help you if you need to re-arrange different sections of text. Word works in a linear fashion: you view your entire document from start to finish, in the same manner you would view a printed paper. It just isn’t designed for crafting longer documents with multiple sections, nor is it designed to allow you to easily bounce between multiple sections of a document at the same time

On the other hand, Scrivener is purpose built for long-form writing. Authors of all types rave about Scrivener, and it’s beginning to catch on in the legal community.

Organize your research

Scrivener’s built-in research binder helps you keep the mountain of research behind every legal brief organized and accessible. You can create notecards, assign labels, color code different items, and organize all types of research right from within Scrivener. Built-in support for PDFs allows you to store and view PDF files, and opening the original file to make highlights is just one click.

Few things are more frustrating than revisiting a particular argument and having to spend time hunting down the exact spot in the source material. Scrivener allows you to easily create links tying the research in your binder to the various elements in your brief.

Break apart your brief

By far, my favorite feature of Scrivener is the ability to break apart a document into various chunks, easily move them around, and view entirely different sections at the same time.

Scrivener Screenshot

When I’m writing a brief, each element of an argument gets its own section, all within a master arguments folder. The cover page, table of contents, etc all get broken out into their own sections. If I want to view everything at once I can, but focusing in on a particular element helps me craft stronger arguments.  If I want to view the argument side-by-side with any other section of the brief, I can do that too.

Snapshots and notes make rewrites painless

I think we’ve all highlighted an entire paragraph, deleted it, rewrote the paragraph, and then desperately mashed Command (⌘) + Z after realizing that the original wording was better. If you’re lucky, Word will let you “undo” far enough to reverse the damage. If not…you better hope you have an old copy somewhere.

Scrivener allows you take “snapshots” of your work and quickly pull up a red-line version of any changes side-by-side. Snapshots is essentially a more powerful version of Word’s track changes feature: you can create multiple snapshots and see the progress of your work through multiple revisions.

A notes box allows you to jot down ideas about a document section, without having to open a new window.  Similar to a virtual sticky note, they are far less of a hassle than the comments feature in Word and don’t appear anywhere in the final document. Word-style commenting is also built in, should you want to link comments to a specific sentence.

Leave the formatting until the end

One of the more boring chores in crafting a brief (or any document) is fixing the formatting. Double spacing, fonts sizes, margins, page numbers…the list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, the way the professor (or the court) wants a brief formatted is seldom the way that most people like to work on documents using a computer. I can’t tell you how often I’ve found myself rushing at the end to get things formatted correctly.

Scrivener allows you to create templates that will take all of your blocks of text and spit out formatted document. This takes a bit of time to initially set up, but do it once and you can use it again and again. If you want to make a change to your document or move things around, you can do so knowing that you won’t inadvertently create formatting issues that take hours to solve. Support for Word, PDF, plain text, and print (among other formats) is built in.


Closing thoughts

While I love Scrivener, and can honestly say that it’s helped me improve my legal writing, it isn’t perfect.

For starters, you’ll likely need to look at the manual at some point. Scrivener is used by writers of every stripe for blog posts, journal articles, eBooks, and physical books. While well-designed, there are a ton of features that you probably won’t use. Template creation isn’t as intuitive as it could be, and the sheer breadth of options can make it a challenge to find what you need. I found that working backwards from one of Scrivener’s stock templates was far easier than trying to build something from scratch.

You won’t be able to give up Word entirely either, as the collaboration features in Scrivener only work with other Scrivener users. If you save your document as a Word file and send it to someone else who makes revisions or add comments, those additions don’t automatically get pulled in and you’ll have to manually make updates.

Despite these drawbacks, I still find Scrivener a valuable tool. While Word still hits the spot for short assignments, for anything substantial Scrivener is my go-to.

Scrivener is available for $45 on the Mac App Store, and a 30-day free trial is available on Scrivener’s website. Student users are eligible for a discounted price of $38.25 when purchasing directly from the developer. 


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