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Writing Legal Briefs with Scrivener

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WordPerfect 5.1 is legendary among tech geeks of a certain age, and still has devoted users. I used various incarnations of WordPerfect as my main word processor and brief[1] writing tool until just a few years ago, when I succumbed to the inevitable force of change, and switched to Microsoft Word. Now, though, I’m not even using a traditional word processor as my main brief writing application, because I’ve discovered that Scrivener is a fantastic tool for that purpose.

An experienced Scrivener user could write an entire book (using Scrivener, of course) on the benefits of writing with Scrivener. I consider myself an intermediate Scrivener user, at best, so I’ll hit on just a few of the reasons that I like using it to write briefs. I’m using the Mac version, but believe all of the below information should apply to the Windows version, too:

1. Templates. Other word processors offer users the ability to use templates, but it wasn’t until I used Scrivener that the idea of templates really clicked for me. I have a template for appellate briefs, and a template for trial court briefs. Those templates have my sections already set up for me, including Statement of Facts, Procedural History, Issues, Argument, and so on. I choose a template at the start of a project, and can jump right in without fussing over a setup.

Scrivener templates

2. Sidebar. The sections that I mentioned above show up in the left sidebar in Scrivener, making it very easy to jump around a document. I also will break my argument section into subsections in the sidebar, which pays off during the writing process. Doing so makes it very easy to rearrange material. One of the difficulties that I had with Word was that longer briefs could become very cumbersome to edit. With my brief broken up into sections in Scrivener, editing is much faster, and I can find information much easier. The sidebar also makes it easy to visualize even a longer brief.

3. Research. Gone are the days of having my research strewn in several locations on my hard drive, or of looking up a case for the tenth time because I didn’t save it. Now, I dump all my research into the Research section of the sidebar in Scrivener, and I can easily access it. Scrivener also offers the ability to toggle a split screen view off and on, so I can keep my brief and research up on the screen, side by side. This makes copying and pasting very effortless.

4. Compile. When I have my brief in near final form, I export it from Scrivener to a .docx format using Scrivener’s customizable Compile function. The beauty of this feature is that you can write in Scrivener without worrying about formatting. Focus on the brief, and leave formatting alone. If you so choose, all of your formatting (fonts, tabs, headings, etc.) is done via your Compile settings when you’re done. I’ve saved a customized “Appellete Brief” Compile preset that isn’t perfect, but gets me pretty close to how I want my final product to look.

Scrivener Compile


Scrivener does come with a learning curve. For example, I took me some time to learn how to set up a formatting preset (accessible via Format > Formatting > Apply Preset) to handle block quotes. From there, though, I’ve found that writing briefs is much easier.

  1. The word “brief” is a misnomer in the legal field, as most briefs are anything but brief.  ↩