By its nature, law is often wordy and protracted – legal documents can fill most laypeople with dread, and poorly written legal documents can be even worse.
If you are hoping to practice law (or already are) then it is a good idea to practice writing. You’ll have to become an expert at writing demand letters, emails to clients and colleagues, Motions, memos, Contracts, Agreements, and so on, so the sooner you learn to master your writing techniques the sooner you will become successful.
The following techniques will help you keep your writing simple and succinct, ensuring facts are concisely placed with minimal ambiguity or obscurity, guaranteeing you are understood.
• Short, Simple Sentence Structure
Vital information can be lost within complex sentence structures that extend to over a few lines in length. Keep your sentences short, succinct, and ideally, no more than 2 lines in length.
Use plenty of breaks to separate sections; headings, paragraphs, and other signposts can all highlight elements that the reader requires, saving much time and effort in scan reading lengthy documents.
• Legalese & the Layperson
If your intended audience cannot understand the legal jargon contained within your written document you are likely to cause confusion, disappointment, and irritation. Your clients don’t want to research every vague legal term they come up against, so ensure you use language they can understand and with which they are familiar in order to fully explain terms.
Use headings that encapsulate the main point of each section, clearly explain that point in plain English, and summarise your argument concisely.
Writing for non-lawyers can be problematic – to become experts at law we must learn to think in a legal language and use terms such as, ‘insofar’, ‘whilst’ and ‘monies’. However, this isn’t everyday English. Show empathy and compassion by using familiar English terms instead of convoluted legal language and this will ensure your writing can be easily understood.
Write for your reader, not for yourself.
• Use Correct English
Grammar, punctuation and spelling all have a bearing on your writing, so try to keep a dictionary and thesaurus handy to check spellings or to find alternative words.
You should aim to write as you speak, especially if you are likely to read your work aloud, as stumbling over protracted sentence structures, or unpronounceable words, is both unnecessary and awkward.
Good punctuation can aid reading speed and comprehension, while poor punctuation can suggest sloppiness, lack of knowledge, and can cause confusion for readers. If you are unsure of grammar rules and correct punctuation taking the time to learn them can aid success, but you can also ask someone to edit your work in the meantime, especially if it is a high-stakes document.
• Use the Active Voice
Most expert legal writers advocate using the active voice in your writing. This means in an ‘active’ sentence the subject is doing the action, whereas in a ‘passive’ voice the target of the action gets promoted to the subject. For instance:
The judge ruled – active voice
The ruling was made by the judge – passive voice
Active voice sentences are generally more concise, meaning your point is emphasised more noticeably.
• List Format/Bullet Points
Don’t be afraid to use list format or bullet points when expressing multiple opinions or points that share common ground. Contracts and Agreements can frequently be formed using this technique as there are often multiple items for each clause. This can save lots of wordy sentences, makes for easier reading, and avoids ambiguity.
Following these tips will help you improve your writing, paving the way for your success. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from someone who is good at writing – a writing mentor can provide a huge boost to your abilities and confidence.