How to improve your legal writing skills

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When working as a legal professional, one of the most important skills in your repertoire is the ability to write well. This month, ILSPA have provided us with some top tips, strategies and techniques that may help you to be a better legal writer.

Here are five key ways to improve your legal writing skills.

Know your audience

You need to take into account how knowledgeable or experienced your audience is in the matter you are writing about. Once you have established this you can then decide what kind of language to use. It is usually preferable to tone down unnecessary complexity, vary the sentence structure and avoid legal jargon.

Documents sent to court normally have a set look and feel. People who have completed ILSPA’s Legal Secretaries Diploma course will be aware of this from the drafting tasks in the Civil Litigation section of the course. If you are unsure of the formatting of a document you must consult with someone who does know or consider undertaking further training.

Get to the point

The worst kind of drafting consists of long-winded waffling. If you can establish in advance what the point of the document 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 each paragraph and check that it does not contain anything that is unnecessary.

Avoid using phrases such as “we advise that” or “we note” which are popular with lazy legal writers. These phrases do not add anything and are usually used by writers who do not know how to start a sentence.

Try to use shorter rather than longer sentences, as this will help with clarity. In short sentences, no more than two lines long, you present one idea at a time in the order most convenient to the reader. Neither the writer nor the reader can get lost and mistakes also become easier for you to spot.

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

Plan for the worst

Always assume that your 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 your writing read out in court, it is time for a rewrite.

Do not use jargon

The following is an example of modern legal jargon. Would a non-legal professional 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.”

Find suitable replacements for words such as these so readers without a legal background can understand the document without having to stop and find definitions.

Read it again

Consider for a moment, how many times have you written something that is perfect first time? If you often rely on a spell checker, you will probably know the embarrassment of the checker substituting an incorrect word. Or, if you do not properly spell check your work, how often is a document littered with simple typos and grammatical mistakes? Spell checkers can be helpful, but you must remember to also read it through yourself to ensure that it is accurate. 

Some of the easiest places to overlook mistakes are the sections outside the main body of text. 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. One of the best pieces of advice that can be given to someone drafting a legal document is that everything is important. Even the mundane details are significant, as a minor mistake will make you look careless, and could even affect the validity of your document.

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.”

The Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs (ILSPA) is a professional body who are dedicated to your career every step of the way. Whether you would like to become a Legal Secretary or you would like to advance your Legal Secretary career, they are there to support you through your journey.  For more information visit www.institutelegalsecretaries.com.

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