The legal profession relies heavily on the written word as one of its most important tools. Legal writing is the medium in which we express legal analysis, legal rights and duties, informing, advocating, instructing and persuading over a wide range of different materials.
Legal writing shares a lot in common with other forms of the written word. For the most part, it has the same goals in that you want to communicate in the clearest manner using the simplest language within the least amount of words.
It also shares another thing with other types of written communication: people have a hard time getting it right. With so many ways to write a single idea, it’s just not that easy for people to make the right decision when choosing which way to go.
Here are some guidelines to help with your legal writing tasks:
- Don’t sound like an archaic statesman. That is, avoid the use of those ridiculous phrases and jargon that permeate dusty legal documents of yore. Words like aforementioned, heretofore and their ilk have no place in today’s vernacular — even in legal writing. If you’re afraid that dropping those will make you sound casual and informal, pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal or The Economist. Aim for a style similar to what those publications do — formal, but plain and easy to understand. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to read an article or two from those publications before you actually start drafting a legal document so they can influence your style. Everyone who reads what you wrote will thank you for it.
- Use concrete words. Spend any amount of time in the legal field and you’ll find out how easy it is to fill up your mind with loads of legal abstractions. While there are times when using “subject matter jurisdiction” and similar terms are the only way to communicate a thought, those moments are actually not as common as some legal documents will suggest. A good rule of thumb is to use these abstract legalese only when there’s no simpler, more familiar way to convey the message. Otherwise, stick with the kind of concrete word choices normal people can understand.
- Aim to clarify. Make clarifying your point and your message the primary goal in when you write. Don’t aim to impress. Don’t aim to obfuscate (it’s obvious when you’re trying to complicate something). Don’t aim to confuse. The more people trust your writing, the more favors will end up going your way, especially when those arguing against you are doing other things like trying to impress, obfuscating and creating confusion.
- Never forget your audience. Like any other form of writing, you need to tailor your documents to fit the reader. A brief you’re preparing for a judge will likely read differently than a release on the same issue that you’re writing to members of the press. Content, word choice and tone are all things that require changes depending on who’s going to read a piece of writing.
- Learn good grammar. At the least, use an English writing software to make sure you don’t turn in a document riddled with avoidable grammar and spelling errors. Poor grammar just makes you look uneducated — something that doesn’t bode well in a field where the practitioners are, generally, highly educated.
- Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say out loud. If a phrase, a sentence or a passage sounds awkward or in poor form when you read it out loud, rewrite it. Good writing should be able to stand up to strong oratorical reading, especially in the legal field. The common advice to read your writing aloud during revision will work excellently for you here.
- Organize your writing. Make your documents easier to read by using visual clues, such as headers and subtitles, to guide the reader. Group ideas in separate sections if it makes sense in order to better compartmentalize each individual discussion. This doesn’t just help make your message easier to digest — it greatly improves your document’s readability, too. Most importantly, limit your paragraphs to a single topic each in order to avoid confusing readers.
- Don’t bury your most important content. What’s the most important message or idea you want to convey? Whatever it is, make sure it appears in your first paragraph, instead of just the body as part of the discussion. Repeat it multiple times, too, making sure it’s emphasized and amplified such that it’s impossible to miss. If an idea seems an awkward fit for your introduction, then create a summary or abstract preceding the intro where the important idea can be quickly highlighted. You need to give your most important ideas the spotlight, conforming the document according to them — not the other way around.
- Make sure all your sentences can be understood in one reading. If somebody needs to go over a sentence two or three times in order to “get it,” then it needs to be rewritten. There are many reasons why a sentence could end up this difficult to comprehend: too long, obscure word choices, improper punctuation, pronoun misuse and a whole host of other things. Whatever the reason is, the symptom is usually clear as day. Just rewrite it until it can be digested in a single pass.
- Avoid passive constructions. A lot of legal writing from the old days is written in the passive voice. As such, it has persisted among a lot of people in the field today. Just because those ancient law books you read wrote things that way doesn’t mean you have to do the same. Instead, follow current writing standards, adopting the active form by structuring your sentences to use strong, action verbs.
- Edit ruthlessly. Half of writing is rewriting. In fact, it probably takes up more than half of the time for a lot of other people. Either way, editing and revision is where you trim and polish your work — it’s where you cut, prune, shorten, connect, combine, simplify and perform all sorts of changes that improve your piece.