Developing Legal Writing Skills

Legal Writing.jpgOne of the fundamental skills for every lawyer is writing well. As a Legal Secretary studying one of our Advanced Single Subject Legal courses or performing Paralegal duties within your firm, this is a skill you also need to have. This month we will consider some top tips, strategies and techniques that may help you be a better legal writer.

Five ways that will help you improve your writing skills are as follows:

Know your audience

If you can work out how knowledgeable your audience is, then you can decide what kind of language to use. It usually pays to tone down unnecessary complexity, vary the sentence structure and avoid jargon. Documents sent to court usually have a set look and feel. This is something that those of you who have studied on the Diploma course will be aware of from the drafting tasks in the civil litigation part of your portfolio.

Get to the point!

The worst kind of drafting consists of long-winded waffling. If you can figure out in advance what the point of the document actually is, then you are less likely to stray off topic. A top tip for ensuring that you stick to the point is to go back after you have written something and check that it does not contain anything that is unnecessary.

It is common for lazy legal writers to use nifty phrases like “we advise that” or “we note”. These phrases do not add anything and usually pop up because you do not know how to start a sentence.

Another way to help with clarity is to use shorter rather than longer sentences. Try using sentences that are no more than two lines long. In short sentences, you present one idea at a time in the order most convenient to the reader. Neither the writer nor the reader can get lost. Mistakes also become easier to spot.

You can also try using shorter or less complex words. That does not mean using childlike language. It is about simplicity of expression and concise use of language. It is harder than it looks, but simplicity can be more powerful than complexity.

Plan for the worst

I always assume that what I am writing will end up in front of a judge. If you make this your mantra, you will be surprised how it changes the way you write. If you would not be happy to have what you have written read out in court, then do not write it down.

Do not use jargon

The following is an example of modern legal jargon. Would a non-lawyer understand the words in bold?

“In August 2008, 19 individuals brought a putative class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against Facebook and the companies that had participated in Beacon, alleging violations of various federal and state privacy laws. The putative class comprised only those individuals whose personal information had been obtained and disclosed by Beacon during the approximately one-month period in which the program’s default setting was opt out rather than opt in. The complaint sought damages and various forms of equitable relief, including an injunction barring the defendants from continuing the program.”

Read it again

How many times have you written something that is perfect? If, like me, you now rely too much on a spell checker, you will know the embarrassment of a word incorrectly substituted. Or if you do not properly check what you write, how often is a document littered with simple typos?

The most common errors are found in the address block, the subject line, the “your reference” parts – anywhere that is often not really read properly as it does not contain the “important stuff” like the legal advice. Everything is important in a legal document, even the mundane details, as a minor mistake will make you look careless.

Until you have started writing in a legal environment, it can be hard to appreciate why lawyers often struggle to get a letter, pleading or brief drafted. Documents will often be written and rewritten even by experienced lawyers. Good writing, legal or otherwise, is not something you learn overnight but a skill you develop over time and have to practise. If you master the skill, then you will help those reading your work as they will save both time and effort when trying to understand you. Perhaps the words of Lord Neuberger are a clear and concise way to sum up the struggle all lawyers have to write well:  

“…composing documents or legal arguments well is a real art, and even to the good experienced drafter it is never easy.”