Most people have high expectations of legal writing, and these expectations are justified. Legal writing is substantially more important than a casserole recipe or a children’s story. When a lot of little mistakes pile up, it can have a significant effect on what the document means and how easy it is to understand. To avoid misrepresenting your point or creating legally binding mistakes, brush up on your legal writing skills.
Use the Right Tone
Every legal document has a different purpose, and you aren’t speaking to the same person or the same group every time. Remember that, like a letter, your writing is designated for someone. Make sure the tone of the document is specific and appropriate for the occasion. If you’re writing a document for a client you’re defending, use a tone they’ll understand.
Properly Structure Your Documents
Some legal documents require you to cover a ton of information. It might even feel like an introduction and a table of contents are necessary. When this happens, you might want to make a list at the beginning of the document to outline sections, with a brief synopsis of what each section covers. Some writing tools can generate automatic summaries. Organize the information from beginning to end. If someone is looking for something specific, they’ll know where to go.
Avoid Unnecessarily Complicated Vocabulary
You learned a lot of fancy words in your legal education, and you’re probably chomping at the bit for a chance to use them. Believe it or not, they’re mostly unnecessary in the context of a legal document. Filling the document with a bunch of jargon that only other lawyers will understand can make the document inaccessible and needlessly complicated to many of the people who need to read it. Use simple vocabulary, avoiding legal terms when they aren’t absolutely necessary.
Be Direct and Concise
You might have a lot to express, and that’s where concise language becomes important. All the complexities and the nuances of a situation can be eliminated. Skip directly to the bottom line. Avoid using careful or gentle language. If it is your intention to say that someone stole something, say they stole it. Getting right down to brass tacks makes things easier for everyone involved.
Have a Lawyer Proofread for You
Lawyers often ask each other to proofread important documents. It’s a circle of help and camaraderie that helps everyone do their best. If you’ve done some legal writing and you have no formal legal expertise, getting help from a lawyer is even more important.
Make sure the lawyer you’ve asked to proofread your document specializes in its content. You want someone who knows how to identify things you may not have even realized were mistakes. Choose a lawyer to help you who is from the country where the document exists – the laws aren’t always the same from Australia to the United States to the United Kingdom. A lawyer from the same part of the world as you will be able to give you the best advice.
Edit Until You’re Blue in the Face
Editing is the most important part of legal writing, and that cannot be emphasized enough. Just when you think you’re done editing, go back and do it twice more. Mistakes in legal documents are less likely to be forgiven than mistakes in academic or journalistic writing – you can’t issue a quick correction if someone finds something unintentional in the document. It sometimes helps to edit, do something else for a while, and come back to the document with fresh eyes. You might see things you didn’t see before.
With practice and time, even the most difficult of legal writing tasks will become easier. Be diligent, practice good habits, and let your emerging legal writing excellence become second nature.