Legal writing seems so subjective. Professors and judges have their pet peeves, and there don’t appear to be any “universal” rules. How am I supposed to become a good legal writer if everyone has a different opinion about what makes writing good?
You are correct—there is some subjectivity in legal writing. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t universal rules. I think the pet peeves you reference are just that—pet peeves that don’t really impact the quality of writing. Whether you refer to the prosecuting party as “Plaintiff” or “the plaintiff” isn’t substantively relevant. And, practically speaking, the “Statement of the Facts” is no different than the “Factual Background.”
While you’re a student, though, follow your legal writing professor’s guidance. Once you become a practicing attorney, you’ll need to develop your own voice in your writing and decide what works for you. But remember—good writing is good writing. If you follow IRAC, CREAC, or some similar organizational form, your brief will be organized. And all professors and judges agree on good grammar practices—subject-verb agreement, proper word choice, correct use of colons and semicolons etc. While you don’t need to learn every rule in the Bluebook or ALWD manual, know how to use the manuals and make sure your citations are correct. And always, always, always follow the local rules, which often outline certain sections and subsections for briefs, limit the number of pages, and require specific formatting.
Poorly written briefs can sink a case—no doubt. But an otherwise well-written brief that contains one or a few of a judge’s pet peeves isn’t going to lose your client’s case. Focus on learning the structure of legal writing and working to improve your grammar and writing ability. Read good writing—both legal and non-legal. I think you’ll find there are many universal characteristics of good writing that you can implement in your own work.