Legal Writing Best Practices
By Mary Elizabeth Hammond
Lawyers must learn how to write as effectively as they prosecute and defend. While you may have graduated from law school to perform duties in court, day-to-day tasks will also include drafting, reviewing, and editing legal documents. The execution of each of these documents requires legal knowledge as well as writing skills.
In this article, we’ll provide an overview of legal writing and share insight on best practices to help you enhance your writing skills.
What is Legal Writing?
The purpose of most legal writing is to inform and persuade. A proficient legal writer should be able to jump between the technical legal jargon required for official documents and clear and informative communication for clients. Legal writing includes a wide range of assignments from client intake documents to drafting contracts, motions, briefs, memorandums, and more.
Legal research and writing skills are necessary for nearly all members of the legal profession. This includes lawyers, secretaries, paralegals, judges, legal assistants, and even at times, courtroom workers.
Why is High-Quality Legal Writing Important?
Strong legal writing skills demonstrate to your clients and colleagues that you are a professional, credible, and knowledgeable source. Whether you are drafting an important contract or simply writing a marketing email for your firm, your writing represents you, your law firm, your brand.
A poorly drafted legal document could mean a lost case, miscommunication with a client, or even malpractice. For instance, a personal injury lawyer may need to write a demand letter on behalf of their client. The ability to write this in a professional, clear, and concise manner can impact how that letter is received and whether or not the dispute is settled in a desirable way.
Legal Research and Writing
Legal writing requires the ability to create compelling arguments and cite credible sources. And it starts with research on your audience and writing purpose.
Know Your Audience
Legal documents are often read by several different audiences—mainly clients, judges, opposing counsel, and other legal professionals. In addition, each of these audiences will have varying levels of legal experience and require a unique structure and tone. Writing for lawyers will look different than writing for clients.
For example, a closing letter to a client should be professional, clear, and concise without too much legal jargon. It should be understandable by someone without any legal background. On the other hand, if you are writing a request to a judge or magistrate, you can assume that they will understand certain legal terminology and may consider writing in a more formal tone of voice.
Before you start writing, determine your audience’s demographics (age, income, education level, etc.) and their relationship to you.
The American Bar Association recommends several tools and sources both for legal and general research.
Know Your Purpose
Determine the purpose of each legal writing document before you put your pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). A clearly-defined purpose will guide your writing and help you create a document that is thorough and contains all necessary information—tailored for your audience.
For instance, divorce papers will include all court requirements such as income, assets, and property valuations that require more legal language. Whereas, a client intake form should gather information about a potential client that will allow you to evaluate the benefits of a future lawyer-client relationship. And a letter to opposing counsel may serve to persuade and inform them of an offer. Each of these documents has a different purpose and requires a unique tone and structure.
Before you get started, ask yourself:
- Why am I writing this document?
- What is the desired outcome?
Legal Writing Best Practices
Whether you’re just starting out as a legal writer or looking to refine your skills, these tips will help you create content you can be proud of.
1. Create a well-structured outline
When it comes to a well-written document, organization is key. Once your ideas and research are structured, fleshing out your document is much less daunting.
Create a content structure by writing out the main points you want to convey. Next, under each of these points, place ideas, arguments, and research to support your claims.
Depending on the type of content you’re creating, you’ll likely need an introduction and conclusion. The introduction is where a reader will determine if they are going to read, scan, or skip over your writing.
Many adults are lazy readers. Research cited by CNBC in 2019 found that only 24% of adults had read a book in the previous year. Ensure that your hard work gets read and not skipped over with a solid introduction that hooks the reader. It should be short, clear, and relatable. Include statistics or data when applicable.
2. Make sure it’s readable
Readability is essential for positioning your role as a legal expert. Below are a few quick tips to enhance readability:
- Don’t be too verbose. Keep your content clear, concise, and relevant. Your content should be easily understood by your audience.
- Only use legal jargon when appropriate. Avoid using too much “legalese” or overly complex language. For example, court documents may contain more legal language than correspondence with a client.
- Avoid using double negatives. Commonly used phrases such as “not insignificant” or “not unlike” can come across as unprofessional and demonstrate poor writing skills.
3. Thoroughly proofread and edit
As a legal professional, your writing should demonstrate authority and expertise. If it’s riddled with spelling or grammatical errors, it can undermine your credibility. Ensure your legal writing is free of error by following these tips:
- Read your writing aloud. Proofreading your own writing can get tricky, but when you read it aloud, even in a whisper, you are more likely to catch mistakes.
- Try reading your content backward. Once you’ve written something, you become all too familiar with it. This can make editing difficult. Try reading it from bottom to top to catch any less obvious spelling and grammar errors.
- Get a second pair of eyes on it. Every writer needs an editor. No matter how proficient of a writer and lawyer you may be, human error will make its way into your work. Having a second pair of eyes on your legal writing can help eliminate errors and bring a fresh perspective.
- Master the basics of spelling and grammar. Writing for lawyers is a daily task, you should be comfortable with it. Familiarize yourself with the foundations of spelling and grammar rules before you drive into writing. It may be helpful to take a course to refresh what you may have previously learned in law school classes about legal writing.
- Rely on online editing tools. Sometimes spell check and autocorrect aren’t sufficient. Using tools such as Grammarly.com can double-check your work in real-time and act as a fail-safe against grammatical and spelling errors.
Legal Writing: Organize and Automate Your Legal Documents
Writing is a massive part of the legal industry, and important to your marketing efforts as well. Your day is filled with writing tasks such as document management and document creation. Leveraging a tool like MyCase can help your firm keep all documents organized and easily accessible in a singular, secure location. Plus, you can fast-track document creation with automation.
Try a risk-free 10-day free trial to see what MyCase can do for your firm.