Five Ways to Improve
Your Legal Writing Skills
If you were to take a guess on the most important skill lawyers should have, your guess should be “writing”. It is one of the skills that cannot be overrated in the profession and a fundamental skill for every practicing lawyer. Many people may suggest “speaking” or “oratory skills”, and “advocacy”, but that is just one aspect of legal practice. Having good oratory skills will come in most handy when lawyers are in court, or in negotiation situations. But let’s face it, only a fraction of lawyers will engage in those activities throughout their careers.
On the other hand, every lawyer must write.
Writing and the Legal Profession
Many articles and expert pieces exist on the internet regarding what should or should not be in a piece of legal writing. Most of these materials contain one or two general pieces of advice that apply to almost every form of legal writing. However, one reason why most of these articles may not be reliable is that legal writing takes different forms. The rules that apply to writing a brief argument will not apply to a contract, and a contract will also appear different from a deed. Furthermore, when we consider the fact that there are various forms of contracts and transactions, and different forms of deeds (depending on the jurisdiction), we truly appreciate the diversity in legal writing.
Writing is so essential to the legal profession that it begins right from law school. Succeeding or failing at law school hugely depends on how well you are able to present points and arguments, to properly answer questions and problems presented to you in exams. It becomes even more necessary during job applications to different law firms, by writing the most enticing cover letters possible, in order to convince law firms to consider you for the vacant position.
The importance of writing will become more apparent to you as you progress in your years of practice. You will be required to handle tasks of higher priority, with more issues at stake. Your writing skills will have to develop as you move up the ladder, to maintain your level of productivity, and client satisfaction.
In this article, we explore useful tips for lawyers to adopt, in order to improve the quality of their writing. There is no “perfect” writing, which is why the quality of your written pieces can always be improved. What matters is that whatever document you are creating is done to the best of your ability. So, let’s improve these abilities!
The Use of Outlines
The most understandable pieces of writing are the ones with specific outlines. This also applies to other areas apart from the legal profession. For lawyers however, creating outlines may be a bit complicated. Some legal documents – like deeds and some other types of agreements – have specific outlines created under the law of their different jurisdictions. Some contracts also have ready made templates by some legal contract software programs. However, there are still many documents created by lawyers that will require creating new outlines by the writer to make the document more understandable. The most relatable example is a brief of argument or a counsel’s written address. When a document is aimed at convincing the court to rule in favor of a party, it is only reasonable that the arguments should be well arranged and presented in a convincing manner. Having an outline helps in achieving this. It guides the reader’s train of thought in understanding the contents of the document and gives the lawyer a good chance at winning the case.
Even the best of lawyers find themselves breaking this rule sometimes. Lawyers have the tendency to over explain themselves when trying to make a point, which kind of comes with the territory – your job as a lawyer, most times, is to make a point. Many lawyers take this habit to their writing, using long and complicated sentences in forming their documents. This method of writing is heavily counterproductive. It makes the sentences and paragraphs difficult to follow by the reader and renders the document entirely boring. Using short and concise sentences is a better way to present sentences and points. They are easier to read, more understandable, and most importantly, less boring.
Proper Topic Sentences
Topic sentences are the sentences that begin your paragraphs. They set the tone for the entire paragraph, and sometimes, the rest of the document. Topic sentences are more important when it comes to shorter documents. The impression given to the reader by the topic sentence is likely to last the entire document. The impression of a good topic sentence is left on the subconscious of the reader. It keeps the reader interested in what comes ahead, and provides a context for the rest of the paragraph. For some documents, the topic sentence of each paragraph already completes half the job, if properly written. It serves the dual purpose of introducing the paragraph to the reader, and briefly summarising the subsequent sentences.
Writing in Active Voice
This is closely related to the concise writing tip, which we addressed earlier. Simply put, sentences are better when written in an active voice. Speaking in a passive voice may sound elegant and sophisticated, but that is not the aim of writing. Writing is supposed to be clear, simple, and easy to understand. That is where the sophistication of any piece of writing comes from. For example, “the defendant took a trip” is a simpler and clearer sentence than “a trip was taken by the defendant”, even if they both mean the same thing. Again, the aim of writing is to pass a message to the reader, without going through any deal of stress before understanding the written text. Consistently writing in passive voice, rather than active, will make it increasingly difficult to achieve that.
Editing, Proofreading, and Reviewing
Ernest Hemingway, one of the most revered writers in history, was particularly vocal about the absolute lack of quality in any first draft. Every document should be reread, edited, and rewritten as many times as possible. It is more possible for a document to be underwritten than overwritten.
After you complete your first draft, go over the document all over again. Edit your sentences by rewriting them and making them look better. Look out for sentences that look too complex and simplify them as best as possible. Replace sentences in the passive voice with active voice and find simpler synonyms for heavy vocabularies. Upon completing the second or third draft, proofread for grammatical errors. Software like Grammarly could come in handy at this point. Finally, share your document(s) with teammates or other colleagues to review. A second perspective may be more beneficial than you think.
Finally, like any other endeavour, you get better at writing by writing. Practice your writing as much as possible, especially at the early stages of your career. Volunteer to write less delicate documents on behalf of your firm, and look to your superiors for comments and corrections. At some point in your career, your client’s life or business will depend on what you write, and how well you write it. You want to be fully prepared when that time comes!
About the Author
Kateryna Pidhaina is a member of the marketing team in a product IT company.