If there are two things an attorney must know well, it’s the law and how to write. As a lawyer, you spend a great deal of time drafting briefs and presenting written arguments in support of your clients. In sum, legal writing is critical for success.
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What Is Legal Writing?
Legal writing is the practice of drafting a balanced analysis of a legal issue. For example, you may need to draft office memos and letters to your clients about a specific legal matter.
Legal writing skills are also used to persuade others (such as a judge or jury) on your clients’ behalf. This includes drafting negotiation letters and written arguments.
You don’t have to be Hemingway to write well. And, luckily, there’s a wealth of information available in the form of common standards illustrating how to effectively write as an attorney.
Legal Writing Isn’t the Same as Website Writing
Many attorneys consider legal writing to also include writing for their websites or email newsletters. This isn’t true. Writing content for marketing purposes requires a different approach. Legal writing must be clear and concise, completely free of marketing and sales messages.
How to Approach Legal Writing
If you walk away from this guide understanding one point, make it this one: Stop writing like a lawyer. Legal writing in plain English is preferred in modern times. Plus, it makes things easier for you, your clients, and your team.
Remember, the majority of the people you serve aren’t attorneys themselves. You don’t need your writing to appeal to law school professors. Part of persuasion is being able to write in a way that enables your audience to relate to and understand your point. So, trade in the legalese for simplicity. Here’s how to do it:
- Use shorter sentences and paragraphs. Verbosity, or wordiness, is a problem most attorneys struggle with. The goal is to get your point across concisely. Use shorter sentences and paragraphs to make your ideas easier to grasp.
- Drop the jargon. Although legalese is fine when speaking to other attorneys, they’re not necessarily your audience when writing legal documents. Replace jargon with common words that are easy for all to understand.
- Use active voice. Passive voice focuses on the verb in a sentence instead of the subject. Active voice places the focus back on the subject, clarifying your message. For example, instead of writing “a crime was committed,” write “the assailant committed the crime.”
- Edit, edit, edit. Once you’re done writing, edit to remove unnecessary jargon, redundancy, and verbosity. Be ruthless.
Consistency Is Key
In legal writing, there’s zero room for confusion. It doesn’t help your case, literally. You must remain consistent in how you write. For example, don’t use different words to explain the same things. Instead, use a precise term your audience can understand. Familiarize yourself with the common conventions and standards of legal writing and stick to them.
Put Words on the Page
Don’t try to reach perfection in your writing at the outset. Instead, simply put words down on the page, read it through, and ensure your thoughts make sense. You can edit and format later.
Common Conventions in Legal Writing
Legal writing is known for having a laundry list of rules to follow. We’re here to share an outline of some of the more common conventions.
We also recommend using the various resources available online or in print to help you dive deeper. For example, Bryan A. Garner, an expert in legal writing in plain English, has many books that serve as legal writing manuals for the modern writer.
Basic Grammar Standards in Legal Writing
Grammar and formatting may vary depending on what you’re drafting. For example, client memos may have a different look and feel than depositions. Yet, some basic grammar standards exist regardless of the document you’re working on.
- Use the present tense. Write as if something is true at the time it’s delivered versus in the past or future. For example, say “is” instead of “shall be.”
- Use positive words. When you can, use words that will not offend your reader. For example, avoid using words like “wrong” or “loss.”
- Use the Oxford comma. The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is the standard in legal writing.
- Strive for clarity. Avoid using words such as “that” and “such” in a preceding sentence. These terms often cause unnecessary confusion.
Basic Formatting Standards in Legal Writing
When creating legal documents, there are a few basic standards to follow:
- Stick to one font. Multiple fonts make a document difficult to read. Stick to one font and use headings and short paragraphs to break up the text. While some courts request specific fonts, others simply require easy-to-read fonts. If there are no requirements, stick to something simple such as Arial or Century Schoolbook.
- Don’t overuse bold or italics. Remember, bold and italic typography are for emphasis only. Use both sparingly.
- Set your margins. As a general rule, set your margins at two inches on the top and one inch on the bottom. Legal documents typically use double spacing for the body of a text.
To simplify formatting, create a template you can come back to each time you need to draft a legal document. This is simple to do inside Microsoft Word. Plus, Word also offers free downloadable templates online for easy document creation.
How to Acknowledge Sources
The standard for citation in legal documents is The Bluebook, a guide to universal citation. The guide explains legal citation in detail, so get a copy, read through it to know what it covers, then keep it next to you at all times.
Here are some basic citation rules you can add to your legal writing knowledge now.
When citing a court case, you must have the following components:
- Case name
- Court where the case was decided
- Year the decision took place
Tom Brown v. Gas Co., Inc., 756 U.S. 87 (2d Cir. 1987)
Statutes & Laws
When citing a federal or state statute, you must include the:
- Title of the act
- Source where the act is found
- Year enacted or published
- Chapters or section(s) being referred to
Il. Code Ann, § 39-2-19 (2014).
When Should You Use Abbreviations in Legal Writing?
Abbreviations should be used to replace redundant legal terms throughout your legal documents. The Bluebook also outlines the rules for abbreviations when writing. Some common abbreviations include:
- Aff. for Affidavit
- Atty. for Attorney
- Compl. for Complaint
- Ct. for Court
- Def. for Defendant
- Dep. for Deposition
- Hr’g for Hearing
- Mot. for Motion
- Pet. for Petition
- Pl. for Plaintiff
- R. for Record
- T.R.O. for Temporary Restraining Order
- Test. for Testimony
- V.S. for Verifies Statement
Mistakes to Avoid in Legal Writing
Legal writing isn’t easy. No doubt, as you write depositions and memos, you’ll make your fair share of mistakes. There are some mistakes, though, you can put a stop to right now to improve the readability of your documents.
Attorneys are notorious for wordiness. Take this sentence for example: “The attorney must make a decision about what to do with the case.” As we’re writing this, Word is already underlining “make a decision.” Why? It’s a confusing nominalization—a term that means using a weaker noun instead of a verb.
“The attorney must decide what to do with the case” is easier to understand and read. Always avoid using nominalizations in your legal writing.
Verbosity & Redundancy
Why use multiple words when one will suffice? To be redundant means to exceed what is necessary. The term refers to words that are unnecessary to your point. For example, “cease and desist” is redundant. Avoid redundancies that clog up your documents and make them a pain to read.
Qualifiers add to or diminish the meaning of a word or phrase. For example, “legal writing is somewhat difficult” includes the qualifying phrase “somewhat.” Although these have their place, qualifiers often make you sound unsure. Uncertainty has no place in legal writing.
Practice Makes Perfect
It’s impossible to become a prolific legal writing extraordinaire in one day. Writing takes practice. Thankfully, legal writing is a critical part of our profession, which means you’ll have numerous opportunities to improve.
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