8 Tweaks To Improve Your Legal Writing Skills As A Lawyer
The practice of law as a profession is one that exists to serve the public. To this end, lawyers have to play the role of legal representatives to clients in various capacities and differing specializations. And in successfully resolving the client’s legal matters, lawyers must have recourse to both their oral and written advocacy skills. And given the importance of these skills to the lawyers work, it’s unarguable that a lawyer who has gone the extra mile to work on these vital practicing skills would occupy a position of strength in a legal market where lawyers are a dime a dozen. The rewards are robust advocacy, effective representation and better client service for the bold and daring lawyer. While we’ve addressed the ways to improve oral advocacy in a recent post, today, we’ll be looking at how to improve your written advocacy skills. To put it another way, the techniques to improve your legal writing skills as a lawyer. Good legal writing is now a desideratum for practicing lawyers, whether in private practice or public interest and this also applies to non-practicing lawyers with a flair for business. To secure the client’s interests in litigation, legal practitioners must draft concise and persuasive brief of arguments when appearing before courts. Thus legal practitioners with a deft mastery of the fundamentals of legal writing may find it to be a ready stock-in-trade they could leverage to excel in their respective law specialties. Likewise, non-practicing lawyers who decide to quit law for a calling in business may find their legal writing skills quite handy whenever they have to write a contract or other business agreements. Now, let’s turn to the tweaks you need to give your legal writing a real lift.
(1) Write for your audience
Legal writing follows expediency and demands you sacrifice your voice and style of writing to follow a boring formula to writing. And that’s as good as it gets.
This is precisely why it’s a bit of a drudgery for lawyers. Nobody likes any kind of writing that is more of a science than an art since it would close the door to individual creativity. When I’m engaged in legal writing, it tends to shackle my poetic license to go off on a tangent from over-used writing conventions and invent words of my own. It means I can’t crack witty jokes for personal amusement. That must really rankle with anyone who already has their own unique style of writing. Whenever it comes to legal writing, the watch word for legal writers is self-abnegation. But there’s a reason for this shackling of the writers freedom. Write-ups vary in style and content depending on the audience. Likewise, legal writing follows this same formula. Lawyers must give up their respective individual writing quirks and instead adopt a form that meets with the needs of their audiences. For instance, a written brief to be used in the courtroom varies in form from a memo meant for a client. The latter has to be authoritative, persuasive and ideally takes on a more formalistic style in line with the IRAC system of legal analysis. The former is quite the contrary. It’s usually less technical and more reader-friendly. You should always tailor your writing to suit your specific audience.
(2) Begin with organization
For clarity and easy understanding, a piece of legal writing must be organized in a logical and cohesive way so readers easily follow your train of thoughts or rationale.
To achieve this, employ proper paragraphing in your analysis of issues where necessary. And if you have multiple issues to discuss, break them down into subtopics or numbered or lettered sections.
(3) Write as often
If we go by Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” of mastery in the “Outliers” it will take you approximately that number of hours to become a cracker jack at anything of real merit. Legal writing follows exactly this same rule. The more you develop a writing ritual the more your writing improves. Take that from someone who hates writing. Before now, I’ve disliked writing at all and use to blame it on the seeming lag in scientific innovations that would enable machines transcribe my thoughts on paper. I could deeply think about an article and do research on it but whenever it came to the writing part, I just loathed it. But once I got down to writing I realized with time that the unease just died out the more I practiced writing. The one way to become a better legal writer is to really write. Any veteran lawyer will tell you that, believe me.
(4) Use Concrete Words
Both the study and practice of law enriches lawyers with an endless supply of indefinite and verbose vocabulary words. Given this excess of legal terminologies and abstractions at our disposal, we often fall into the temptation of using words indiscriminately to befuddle and stupefy our readers or listeners. And as you can imagine, this works like a two-edged. While our over-use of legal abstractions may serve the aim of confirming our claim of erudition to our lay readers. It also creates ambiguity and cast doubts in the mind of our readers as to the import of our writing. The bottom line, we’re really not heard. And we can’t whine about that as it is entirely of our making. If you don’t want to be misunderstood in what you write, then cut out every vagueness. Incorporate concrete words into your writing, be it a memo, brief or contractual agreement. Stay clear of vague nouns and verbs otherwise known as “empty words” in your writing. Avoid words like “really”, “basically”, and other words which do not add any meaning to your text. “The accused’s testimony left the court in reasonable doubt of his innocence”. “The accused was evasive about why he had run away from the crime scene before the arrival of the police and so the court doubted his innocence”. Learn to always furnish your readers precise details to aid their understanding of your writing.
(5) Write in the active voice
Writing in the active voice is precisely one of the hallmarks of good legal writing. For those legal writers who aren’t in the know, writing in active voice is the surest way to capture the essence of your writing and pique the interest and imagination of your distant readers. It’s impactful in the way that it accurately portrays mental images of the thing being said by specifying who’s performing the action. It promotes simple, direct, and effective writing in as real a way as it can be. Use them generously when you write. “The employee breached his contract of employment when he faked illness and skipped work”. Not “he was in breach of his contract of employment when he skipped work by falsely calling in sick”
(6) Stay away from clichés
For words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools. – Thomas Hobbes
Don’t get me wrong, you are not a fool for using words as you would, the only concern is on setting your writing counters by clichés. Clichés are good enough in themselves since they are things people can relate with but only use a smattering of those. Your over-use of clichés will zap the life out of your writing and it won’t look easy on the eye of your readers. Use less clichés and try to keep clichés like “vigorous dissent” or “strenuous objections” and their likes to a minimum. Never repeat the same word twice in your writing. Isn’t that why words have nearest in meaning? Use synonyms of words and add variety to your writing.
(7) Use less legalese
Lawyers and legal writers must understand that the bedrock of writing of any sort is to communicate not astound. In 9 out of 10 cases the target of our write-ups are laymen or non-lawyers. So if all you do is lawspeak, then you won’t communicate. Instead you’ll come off as some stuffed shirt. Write in a coherent, user-friendly readable way. Otherwise you might be the only one who really enjoys your own writing. Albert Einstein once said that “if you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself”. Write as though you were writing for a six year old. That is the hallmark of good legal writing. It must be written to communicate rather than bamboozle. While writing in legalese may be fanciful for most lawyers but the problem it poses is that a contract full of legalese will appear abstruse to the parties to it who in almost every case are non-lawyers. There is equally the added danger that such a verbose writing might pose, it might leave the parties further unclear on their contractual liabilities and obligations. Let me give you an instance of pure legalese in a contract “excluding any other guarantee or warranty, express or otherwise. Just imagine the effect a statement like this will have on its lay readers – surely it creates confusion. Why not make it a bit plain with “You bear liability for faults arising after your purchase of this product excluding those covered by guaranties or warranties expressed here or otherwise”. That will be a lot clearer to the non-lawyer reader than its verbose version.
(8) Edith Painstakingly
Even veteran lawyers who have polished their writing skills through years of practice in the field still jealously proofread their work upon completion for errors. Do less and your hard-earned reputation and credibility could out the window in a heartbeat. As a lawyer, the errors and omissions you make on written documents could cost your clients money, prove an opposing parties case and lead to a poor standing with the judges. As you finish your next article, look out for those subtle spelling and grammatical mistakes hiding from sight.
These tips just given above could take your legal writing to the next level if you’ll only remember to employ them as you sit down to draft your next document. Hope you really do.
Patrick Herbert is the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Law Student Hub. He is an LL.B. Law graduate from the University of Benin, Nigeria. He’s a life enthusiast, a budding writer and internet entrepreneur. Patrick is deeply passionate about law and research and has inspired many with his thought-provoking articles. To get in touch, follow him on social media.