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How to … Improve your legal writing

By: AARON KRIVITZKY//August 24, 2009//

How to … Improve your legal writing

By: AARON KRIVITZKY//August 24, 2009//

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ImageLegal documents can be difficult to read.

It is not uncommon for dangling participles, incomplete clauses, passive voice, split verb phrases, misspelled words and/or poor grammar to appear in a contract, brief or court opinion.

According to Wayne Schiess, director of the legal writing program at the University of Texas School of Law and author of the blog legalwriting.net, the biggest problem in legal writing is “failure to get to the point.”

But Schiess contends that legal documents don’t have to be so inaccessible. “Lawyers make the excuse that their writing ought to be excessively verbose because that’s the way it’s been done in the past. This is simply not a correct approach,” he said.

Here are some tips for improving your writing from Schiess and Gary Kinder, author, CLE lecturer and founder of the legal writing consulting firm Kinder Legal.

Make your point first, then explain

Schiess suggests that legal briefs and contracts should start with the conclusion.

“Instead of beginning with a back story — which is often full of extraneous, unnecessary information — lead with your conclusion, and then offer your summary,” said Schiess. “Don’t force your reader to skip to the end of a document to see what the point is.”

Use less legalese

Wordiness and hyperbole are two related problems that are often found in legal writing.

“Writing like a lawyer is part of the problem,” Kinder said. “You want to think like a lawyer, of course, but you want to write like a warm, logical, passionate and intelligent human.”

For example, clauses such as “anything contained herein to the contrary notwithstanding” or “subject to and in accordance with” often distract the reader and make it harder to understand the point of a document, Kinder said.

“If you take the time to be clear and concise when you first write something, you will save yourself a headache later on when someone else can’t understand your point,” he advised.

Know your audience

In order to write more clearly and persuasively, you have to think about your audience, said Schiess. Judges, for example, don’t want to read more than a hundred pages of text when the same information can be written more clearly in fewer pages.

Include only what’s necessary to make your point and then move on, suggests Schiess.

Review any form documents

If you’re using forms, both Schiess and Kinder recommend making sure that you confirm what every clause in the form means.

“Forms are economically useful,” Schiess said, “but being hasty and lazy can get you into trouble. If you didn’t write the form you’re using, make sure that you’re not including language that you don’t understand.”

Get a style guide

A good style guide is essential.

While there is no standard style manual for legal writing, Schiess and Kinder both recommend “The Red Book” by Bryan A. Garner. Schiess also recommends “A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting” by Kenneth Adams, and Kinder recommends “Plain English for Lawyers” by Richard Wydick.

Proofread your work

One major problem is that often lawyers don’t proofread their work — and don’t ask anyone else to do it either.

“When a lawyer sends out a brief, even if millions of dollars may be riding on the outcome, sometimes no one will look at it before it goes out,” said Kinder.

While few firms actually have editors on staff, lawyers can improve their own documents by becoming better proofreaders.

Kinder pioneered a patented method of legal proofreading where lawyers look for “target words” in their documents that are frequently misused or overused. These words include the prepositions “of,” “in,” “that” and “to.”

“There’s a finite set of words that can significantly reduce the time it takes to proofread while maximizing your effectiveness as an editor. If you stop, for a moment, at the ‘ofs’ and ‘ins’, you’ll find scores of junk phrases that don’t belong in your document.”

Take a writing course

“Lawyers need to realize that legal writing education is not just for graduate students,” Schiess said. “Attending CLE seminars in writing and instituting a peer review program in your office can do wonders for your writing and your practice’s success.”

This article originally appeared in Lawyers USA, a sister publication of Wisconsin Law Journal. Questions or comments can be directed to the editor at: [email protected]

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