6 steps to improve your legal writing (Whereas, notwithstanding, and heretofore…)

You’re a doctor? Your writing is illegible! 

You’re a marketer? Your writing’s too hyped.

You’re an engineer? You can’t write!

Alas, we normally identify a writing style with particular professions. In fairness, however, the descriptions above are unfair because, indeed, there are doctors who write legibly, marketers who convey truth and authenticity, and engineers who write poetry in their spare time (“shall I compare thee to a summer’s blueprint”?)

And then, of course, there are lawyers and the things they do with their keyboards, pens and quills.

Improving Legal Writing

Sally Kane offers some simple and potent tips for lawyers to improve their writing:

  • Brevity
    OK, we admit that being brief isn’t exactly second nature for most lawyers. But if your goal is to be heard and understood, then you need to get to your point quickly.

  • Simple words
    There may be times and places where you want to impress others with your vast vocabulary – but we can’t think of too many where it’d apply to your writing. Remember you are trying to communicate – don’t make it hard for your readers.

  • Use an active voice
    This one takes work. It’s too often too easy to fall into the passive voice when writing. What’s the difference? You tell us. Which is more powerful? “In the courtroom presided a judge.” Or “The judge presided over the courtroom.” You get it.

  • Avoiding legalese
    Yes we know – you spent a fortune on law school and you feel an obligation to somehow justify that expense by throwing around legal terms and jargons. But don’t do it – no matter how tempting. Again, your goal is to communicate with your audience – and unless you’re writing for other lawyers, people won’t understand what you’re talking about when you use legalese.

  • Ruthless editing
    The first draft should NEVER be the last draft. Take the time to write, edit and then write and edit again. Or ideally, get a second pair of eyes to edit your writing – they will catch far more mistakes and provide objective feedback. Yes it takes time – but it’s worth it.

  • Consideration for audience
    This is hugely important. As we mentioned above, it’s imperative to take some time to think about who you’re writing for – and what you’re trying to communicate. For example, writing for potential corporate clients is much different than writing for law students.

These all can be considered principles of sound writing, whether legal or not. We think, though, that Kane’s advice is best suited for regular legal correspondence (e.g. letters, internal memoranda and research notes).

The thing is, lawyers also write formal procedures and other legal documents that must contain all the standard words and phrases. Ideally, “hereinabove” can simply be “above”, “nothwithstanding” can be replaced by “regardless of” and “in witness whereof” can be simpler with “therefore.” But the law is the law, and legal writing is legal writing.The advice about leaving out foreign words is also common, yet legal procedures are replete with Latin phrases. What is said for non-legal writing, mutatis mutandis, can be said for legal writing.

The Final Word?

Kane’s suggestions are valid and strongly encouraged, but if lawyers work for firms that are entrenched in tradition and have a lot of “old school” senior partners, we can see how legal writing may continue the way it is.

So if generalia verba and ignorantia juris neminem excusat sound strange to you, look them up. It’s always good to learn something new (or old, depending on how you look at it!)

Leave a Comment