Legal writing is a handy skill that every lawyer, law student, or anyone in the law field must possess. But legal writing is a lot different than other writing forms. That’s because it needs much more than a deep understanding of the law. And if you’re curious about the qualities required to excel as a legal writer, this blog post is for you.
Here, we’ll share ten tips to help you become a better legal writer. But first, we’ll briefly discuss the concept of legal writing. So, let’s delve into this discussion.
What Is Legal Writing? – A Brief Introduction
As the name depicts, the term ‘legal writing’ refers to a form of writing used in law. So, any written exposition of legal principles and analyses will fall under this type of writing. But what is the need for legal writing?
Well, legal writing is required to communicate legal information to attorneys, clients, judges and others in a simple manner. That’s because even though people related to the law can understand it, everybody has their own perspective. And to explain your perspective to others, you need more than just the capabilities of being a lawyer. So, that’s where legal writing will come in handy.
This type of writing can come in various forms. Some of those forms are:
- Legal articles.
10 Useful Tips to Improve Legal Writing Skills
After learning the basics of legal writing, you’ll be able to understand the tips to improve legal writing much better.
1. Know Your Audience
Like other forms of writing, it’s crucial to determine your audience in legal writing. Therefore, tip number one of this guide specifies that identifying and understanding your audience is essential before starting to write your legal documents.
When it comes to legal writing, the audience can be your client, opposing counsel, the judge of the case, or the partner at your firm. Sometimes, your audience can be a combination of the four. So, identifying your audience before starting to write your legal document is crucial. However, you must understand a few things regarding the audience of legal documents.
It’s important to remember that the judge may have access to all information related to the case or even beyond it. For instance, let’s say you write a confidential letter to your client, but later, that client turns around and sues you for malpractice. In such a situation, that letter will no longer be confidential. That’s because the letter presented by your client is part of an exhibit of why you were a poor attorney. So, you must know things like these related to the audience of legal writing before starting to write your document.
2. Use the Active Voice As Your Primary Tool
No matter which writing form you’re dealing with, the active nature of sentences plays a crucial role. That’s because they make the entire writing more engaging and direct. And legal writing is no exception to this claim. Therefore, tip number two of this legal writing tips for law students to use active voice as your primary tool.
Active voice refers to when the subject performs an action, whereas passive voice refers to an action performed on the subject. So, you can use passive voice to create a specific effect or emphasis in your writing. However, you should use it sparingly because the excessive use of passive voices can make your writing weak and unclear. That is why using active voice as your default writing style is best. However, let’s elaborate on this more through an example.
Consider the following sentences:
Sentence 1: The defendant ran into a stop sign and crashed severely with the plaintiff. (Active Voice)
Sentence 2: The plaintiff was hit when the defendant ran into the stop sign. (Passive Voice)
In the above example, ‘Sentence 1’ emphasizes the defendant as doing the action. So, it looks clearer and more direct than ‘Sentence 2.’ That is why you should prefer active voice as your default writing style. But there are some exceptions where you can use passive voice.
Let’s say you are dealing with a situation where you have additional facts but haven’t included them in a sentence for any reason. In such a situation, you can use the passive voice effectively. One example of a similar situation is as follows:
Passive Voice: The trust had been changed without the plaintiff’s knowledge.
As you can see, this sentence emphasizes the trust being changed, but it also has that side fact of the plaintiff not knowing the faith had been changed. Such a situation can be beneficial if you’re trying to establish that the plaintiff had been shut out for unknown reasons or was unaware of changes despite having good knowledge. So, for situations like these, you can use passive voice in your legal writing.
3. Learn to Eliminate Qualifying Terms
Qualifying statements (or terms) are good because they add a personal touch to a writing piece. But they can make your argument weak in a legal writing piece. Therefore, tip number three of this guide is to learn to eliminate the use of qualifying terms.
Terms like ‘I believe’ or ‘I think’ are two of the most commonly used qualifying statements in writing. And as you can see, they can add a personal touch to your write-ups. But such a personal touch can weaken your argument and ruin the quality of your legal writing piece. Therefore, you must avoid them in most cases.
However, like passive voices, there are some instances where it will be okay to use qualifying statements. One of those instances is when your audience is your client and you’re trying to hedge your bet while preparing for a crucial hearing or legal motion. In such a situation, you can include things like:
- I think we can be successful if we argue that the light was green
- I believe we have a strong argument, but the judge may disagree.
As you can see, using ‘I think’ and ‘I believe’ doesn’t ruin the above-specified arguments. But the above-specified statements would be better and more confident if written without ‘I think’ and ‘I believe.’ So, that is why eliminating qualifying statements is crucial in legal writing.
4. Learn to Be Concise
Like the use of active and passive voices, explaining the entire scenario in a concise and to-the-point manner is another essential factor required in most writing pieces. And legal writing is one of those pieces. The clearer you can write and the fewer words you can use to say the same thing, the better off you are. And the better your writing is, the better you can present the facts to the judge or the client. Therefore, tip number four of this guide is to learn the art of being concise in legal documents.
Writing in a concise and to-the-point manner requires a lot of practice, especially in legal writing. That’s because you’re unsure what legal terms or phrases you need to make a point. And that is why law students and writers often consider it one of the hardest things to accomplish. However, practicing longer will teach you the skill to use six words instead of twelve. And once you’ve learned that skill, you will be much more favored within the office.
5. Write in Complete Sentences
The fifth tip of this guide is to write complete sentences. You may think this tip seems like a no-brainer and should be the first tip in this guide. Yes, it should be. But we’ve used it as the fifth tip in this guide because discussing all the tips mentioned above was essential before this one.
There is no excuse for an incomplete sentence. It’s simply lazy or incompetent writing to write incomplete sentences. So, you must prioritize writing complete sentences.
But suppose you’ve accidentally lacked some information in a sentence and you’ve identified the incomplete nature of that sentence during proofreading. In such a situation, you can rephrase the sentence through AI rephrasing tools because such tools will provide variations about how to complete that sentence. And you can use the provided variations to complete the original sentences.
As you can see in the above image, the text on the left lacks information about what will happen if a breach occurs. However, the text on the right looks complete because it has been rephrased with the tool.
Sometimes, you can get away with a fragment of an incomplete sentence in legal writing. But that should only be for emphasis and you should refrain from making it a habit. Otherwise, readers will get the perception that you’re an incompetent writer.
6. Learn to Organize Your Writing
No matter what form of writing you’re dealing with, presenting the information in an easy-to-read manner is vital for your audience. And the best way to do that is to organize your writing, which is the sixth tip in this guide on basic rules of legal writing.
When it comes to organizing your writing pieces, one of the effective approaches is to use headings and subheadings, as we’ve done here. Although we’ve not written this blog post according to legal writing format, it still looks organized. And that’s what you must do.
Besides dividing your write-up into various headings, beginning each paragraph with a topic sentence is essential. And to create a natural and logical flow among multiple ideas in a section, you must use transitional words and phrases. Doing so will make your legal write-ups more organized.
7. Learn to Use Name Tags
The next tip for improving your legal writing is using name tags. But what exactly are name tags? And how can you use one? Let’s explore the answer to these questions.
Well, the term ‘name tag’ is a law jargon for having a nickname for a party or a location in a motion, a letter, or a document used in legal writing. But how can you use such jargon in legal writing? Let’s understand this through an example. For this tip, we’ll take inspiration from the examples of plaintiffs discussed in the above points.
Let’s say you want to refer to ‘Plaintiff Paul Passenger’ in your legal document. And instead of repeatedly specifying ‘Plaintiff Paul Passenger,’ you can set up and use a name tag for it like ‘Paul.’ However, you first have to specify the introduction of a name tag. And you can do that like this:
- Plaintiff Paul Passenger (“Paul”).
- Defendant David Driver (“Defendant”).
- Yorktown Mall Partners Incorporated LLC (“Yorktown”).
- Under the trust document dated November 5th, 1955 (“Trust 1” or “November ’55 Trust”).
Thus, you should set up and use a name tag for anything you’ll frequently use throughout your document. This way, you don’t have to use the full and formal name every single time. But if you keep using the complete form, it will make your write-up longer. And the truth is, no one likes to read lengthy documents.
8. Always Spell the Names Correctly
Spelling mistakes can undoubtedly ruin the quality of a writing piece. And legal writing is no exception to this claim. Therefore, tip eight of this guide emphasizes using correct spelling in legal write-ups.
Besides basic English terms, it’s essential to spell your client’s name, the judge’s name and even the opposing counsel’s name correctly. So, you must always double-check the spelling mistakes of your audience’s name, as most of us have terrible memories. And the most straightforward approach to do that is to refer to official documents. However, let’s elaborate on this more.
Let’s say you are writing a letter to your client. In such a case, you should refer to some form of identification, the contract you have with them, or the legal services agreement in order to check your client’s spelling. Similarly, if you are writing a legal document to the judge, you should also check their spelling. And for that, you can refer to the court’s official website. Doing so will help you ensure you’re not misremembering the spelling of your audience names.
Thus, these are some ways to check the spelling of your audience’s names. However, if you want to check the spelling of basic English terms, you can take assistance from a grammar checker. Here is an example that proves how a grammar checker can identify the spelling mistakes of basic English terms in the content:
9. Use Chronological Order for Facts
The most important section in a legal document is where you tell the story. And that section is known as the facts section. So, the second last tip of this guide is to list the facts in a legal document chronologically.
As we’ve mentioned earlier, the facts section of a motion will be the story you’re telling. So, as an author, you can control the story of your document. This means that it is up to you how you want to shape the order of facts in a legal document. But the best way is to use chronological order.
Chronological order means listing the events in the order in which they occurred from first to last. So, experts recommend using this order. But occasionally, you may need to bend the timeline in the trial brief.
10. Know the Rules of Citation
Like other writing forms, citations play a crucial role in legal writing. Therefore, this guide’s last tip is to get yourself familiar with your jurisdiction citation rules and follow them consistently.
Citations are a credibility issue. That’s because your client may or may not know the difference between a correct and an incorrect citation, but while writing to the judge, boss, or opposing counsel, if you cite to the wrong volume, page number, or reporter, you will lose credibility in your audience’s eyes. So, familiarize yourself with the citation rules of your jurisdiction because such rules vary according to the specific legal system and jurisdiction.
Thus, by citing resources, you can make your document more credible and increase your worth in the eyes of your audience.
Overall, becoming a better legal writer may sound daunting at first. But with the proper guideline, you can conquer this mountain of a task. And when it comes to the appropriate guideline for becoming a better legal writer, you won’t need anything other than the tips mentioned above. So, use them to improve your legal writing skills.
But the tips discussed in the above comprehensive guide will only prove helpful if you practice them daily. That’s because no matter what tips you read, you’ll never become a better legal writer if you don’t practice your legal writing skills.