The written word is one of the most important tools of the legal profession. Words are used to advocate, inform, persuade, and instruct. Although mastering legal drafting takes time and practice, superior writing skills are essential to success, and you can take steps to improve yours.
Remember Your Audience
Every word you write should be tailored to the needs of the reader. Documents that embody the same research and message may vary greatly in content and tone based on the document’s intended audience. For example, a brief submitted to the court must advocate and persuade. A memorandum to a client must analyze the issues, report the state of the law, and recommend an appropriate course of action. Always keep your audience in mind when crafting any piece of writing.
Organize Your Writing
Organization is the key to successful legal writing. Create a roadmap for your writing by using visual clues to guide the reader. Introduce your subject in an introductory paragraph, use transitional phrases (“furthermore,” “however,” “in addition,” etc.) between each paragraph, introduce each paragraph with a topic sentence, and use headings and subheadings to break up blocks of text. Limit each paragraph to one topic, and sum up your message with a concluding sentence or paragraph. Organizational structure guides the reader through your text and promotes readability.
Ditch The Legalese
Legalese — specialized legal phrases and jargon — can make your writing abstract, stilted, and archaic. Examples of legalese include words such as aforementioned, herewith, heretofore, and wherein. Ditch unnecessary legalese and other jargon in favor of the clear and simple. To avoid legalese and promote clarity, try reading your sentence to a colleague or substituting abstract words with simple, concrete terms. For example, instead of using “I am in receipt of your correspondence,” use “I received your letter.” It's clearer and more succinct.
Every word you write should contribute to your message. Omit extraneous words, shorten complex sentences, eliminate redundancies, and keep it simple.
Consider the following sentence:
“Due to the fact that the defendant has not attempted to pay back the money owed to our client in the amount of $3,000 it has become absolutely essential that we take appropriate legal action in order to obtain payment of the aforesaid amount.”
A more concise version reads: “Since the defendant has not paid the $3,000 owed our client, we will file a lawsuit seeking reimbursement.” The latter sentence conveys the same information in 18 words versus 44. Omitting unnecessary words helps clarify the meaning of the sentence and adds impact.
Use Action Words
Action words make your legal prose more powerful, dynamic, and vivid. Add punch to your writing with verbs that bring your prose to life. Here are a few examples:
Weak: The defendant was not truthful. Better: The defendant lied.
Weak: The witness quickly came into the courtroom. Better: The witness bolted into the courtroom.
Weak: The judge was very angry. Better: The judge was enraged.
Avoid Passive Voice
Passive voice disguises responsibility for an act by eliminating the subject of the verb. Active voice, on the other hand, tells the reader who is doing the acting and clarifies your message. For example, instead of “the filing deadline was missed,” say “plaintiff’s counsel missed the filing deadline.” Instead of “a crime was committed,” say “the defendant committed the crime.”
Edit your writing ruthlessly, omitting unnecessary words and rewriting for clarity. Careful proofreading is particularly important in legal writing. Spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors in a document submitted to the court, opposing counsel or a client can undermine your credibility as a legal professional.