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  • Writer's pictureHugo Crema

5 tips: how to improve your legal writing in English

5 tips: how to improve your legal writing in English


Whether it's for litigation, consulting, negotiating, or client service, good writing is a crucial skill for lawyers.


By writing in English, we open the doors to working internationally. To express themselves in the second language, lawyers need to make sure that legal documents and communications overcome linguistic, jurisdictional and cultural barriers, and that their tone, style and vocabulary allow them to communicate with a wider range of audiences.



Legal writing is an essential discipline for lawyers in all fields. From petitions, pleadings, and opinions to contracts, internal policies, and articles, legal practice is founded on the art of writing well.


Quality legal writing should show confidence, technical authority, and persuasiveness. Writing in English tends to be more concise, avoiding the periphrasis and paraphrasis so common in Portuguese. Writing in English, we should seek to convey these qualities in international legal contexts.


The work of creating linguistic and cultural bridges is essential to broaden our communication horizons and professional performance.


Check below 5 legal writing tips that will help you improve your writing in English.


Think about it. Which of these 2 texts is easier to understand?


1. Plan the text


Planning. Think about who you are writing to. At this point it is important to ask:

  • Who is your recipient?

  • What relationship do you have with this reader?

  • What is the purpose of this text: to inform, advise, persuade, or other?

  • What formal and material requirements must you fulfill?

Drafting. The best way to structure any piece is to write from top to bottom. Start by showing the reader what you are writing about and why, then list the arguments supporting your thesis. It is important to focus on the most compelling arguments first. Then, present additional supporting arguments. Use headings to break up sections and transition from one argument to the next, and start new sections with summary sentences. Use lists and bullet points to summarize ideas and make the document easier to visualize.


Writing. Even with a detailed outline, it can take time before we start the actual writing. Creative block can be a problem even for most experienced lawyers. Don't worry about getting it right the first time, that's what proofreading and editing are for. In the first draft, bring in as much pertinent information as possible. Make sure that arguments flow from one section to another (linguistically, with prepositions and conjunctions, and rhetorically).


Besides producing as many drafts as possible before the deadline, it is very important to give the document time to breathe. After writing, take a break and come back to the text with fresh eyes.


Two points:

  • Don't worry about cutting, editing and reducing the text in this first phase. Moreover, formatting can be left for later: at this stage, we should accumulate information relevant to the document.

  • When citing Brazilian doctrine and jurisprudence, make sure that the concepts presented are intelligible to an international reader. If necessary, create explanatory notes.

Revising and proofreading. The legal writing process does not end when we finish a document. A common mistake is not to schedule time for editing and proofreading. The consequence of this is that lawyers who submit documents with grammatical errors are seen as sloppy, less trustworthy.


It can be difficult to detect spelling and grammatical errors as soon as you have finished writing. After reading a text several times, you begin to ignore your own mistakes. Reading aloud or reading backwards are good strategies to combat this bias during proofreading. If you have time, let the text rest and come back to it after a few days.


2. Know your audience


Knowing who you are writing for helps shape the structure and tone of your piece. In that sense, it's worth delivering to the reader exactly what they need to know. Sometimes we write everything we know about a topic, and it makes it difficult to understand. A judge, lawyer, or client have different perceptions and expectations of a document. This needs to be taken into account when determining the tone, style, and level of detail in what you write.


3. Get inspired by Warren Buffett


The American investor is known for his extremely concise investor letters. Buffett's letters have an average length of 13,5 words per sentence and 4,9 letters per word. Many lawyers would find it difficult to be so succinct. Not least because portfolios and investment recommendations are extremely technical subjects. Making them understandable to the general public is quite an exercise. In Buffett's case, the results presented are more eloquent than any jargon.


4. Avoid ambiguity


Clarify terms and be consistent. It is important to be clear and specific, giving details without assuming that the reader knows what you mean. Write even what could be assumed by the reader. Don't be afraid of repetition. Examples, graphs, and tables help clarify your point.


Writing a legal document is different from writing a novel or a story. It is important to make referents explicit and use them consistently, even if it sounds like repetition. Always using the same referent (for example, always calling the contractor the contracting party, or better yet, always by its name) reduces the chances that the reader will be confused. If the document contains similar terms but with slightly different meanings (e.g. contractor and contracting party), you can include a glossary to define each term clearly.


Beware of Adverbs and Relative Pronouns. Adverbs are great for causing ambiguity. Words like generally, reasonably, normally, commonly are not specific and are open to interpretation. For example, if a contract provides that:


"The Contractor must employ methods commonly used for this service."


the commonly applied methods are not defined and may vary from reader to reader. Similarly, avoid words such as "it," "this," "that," "such," and "which" to broadly refer to an idea in a previous sentence, as this could cause confusion.


Short sentences and clear layout. Short sentences are recommended for most texts. Getting to the point makes it easier to understand and eliminates textual frills. If you find that one of your sentences is longer than two lines, use a period to divide it into several sentences. This helps to prioritize and highlight the information that is most important to the receiver.


Also, whenever possible, it is worth resorting to visual elements. For example, the proper use of lists, tables, and bullet points organizes and brings clarity to your writing.


Newspaper writing is where you learn to take a particular topic in front of you, hierarchize it, from the most important to the least important. At any point in time, you can chop off paragraphs from the bottom, all the way up, and still have something that logically follows through. Magazine writing is where you tell a story. It’s a journey, and the climax comes at the end.Every time I get a memo in magazine style, I literally tear it up.

5. Check your grammar


Active voice: In proficient English, the subject does something, not something is done to the subject. "John drafted the contract” is in the active voice, preferable to the passive voice of "The contract was drafted by John".


Oxford comma: When listing items, formal English includes a comma before and and or. Ex.: John, Mary, and Anna called a meeting; We could have rented a flat, a studio, or a beach house.


No slang and no hyperbole: Exaggerated use of language hampers text objectivity. In addition, you should avoid exclamation marks.


Be precise: For example, use a specific date instead of "recently", or an address instead of near or about.


Bring clarity. Avoid double negatives: if you have no reason to use it, don't use it. Expressions such as "not insignificant" and "not uncommon" confuse the reader and slow down the reading. Also, we should look for situations where one word can replace several. "In light of the fact that..." could easily be "because". Similarly, we can substitute "in order to" for "to" and "in the vicinity of" for "near". These expressions clutter up the text and make it difficult to read. By streamlining your sentences, space opens up for the most relevant ideas.


Use technology to detect errors. There are many websites and programs to help with legal writing. Natural Reader, for example, will read aloud what you paste into it. It is easier to catch errors when someone else is reading. Other sites, such asrammarly, Briefcatch, Paperpal and LanguageTool, help you revise your text. Another excellent tool is Hemingway.app, that identifies uses of passive voice, overly long sentences, and other problems of textual cohesion.


Use jargon only when appropriate. The use of legal and technical jargon is appropriate in some contexts only (in pleadings and communications with a judge, for example), rarely in direct communication with clients. More often than not, legalese hinders communication and alienates potential readers. We should strive to write in clear language that, besides demonstrating technical mastery, makes the jargon accessible to any reader.


Conclusion


As you take your first steps in legal writing in English, remember that no one becomes a good writer overnight. Legal writing is a skill that is constantly under construction. We must strengthen the foundation of this skill through constant reading, sharing information with other lawyers, and consolidating knowledge.


The only way to improve your writing, legal or otherwise, is to keep writing.


The writing process is complex; it involves more than just writing words. Research, consistency, and proofreading are key skills for producing good legal documents. The more you practice, the easier it will be to write documents and opinions, and the better your work will become over time. The writing tips above are a starting point. Remember to always be open to feedback and constructive criticism.


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