Every day lawyers spend hours writing a variety of legal documents - appeals, briefs, letters of advice, emails - with the goal to persuade or inform.
There is no doubt that being able to communicate effectively in writing is one of the most vital professional skills a lawyer can have. Writing that is poorly structured, dense, filled with grammatical errors, and lacks cohesion is rarely informative, or persuasive. In the worst case, it can alienate and confuse the reader, and even discredit the lawyer.
Luckily, effective legal writing is a skill lawyers can constantly refine and improve. So how can you set yourself up to write a document that will not only inform but persuade your reader? Read our favourite tips to help you hone your legal writing skills.
1. Define format, importance and tools
Is writing the right format?
Before you begin to write you should ask yourself: is text the right format for my message? If you want to persuade someone to adopt your point of view, a face to face conversation or a phone call may be the best alternative in some circumstances.
How important is it?
Generally, the more important a piece of writing is the more time you should allocate to it. This will help you decide how much time you should spend on writing, editing, and proofreading your text.
Can I use a template?
Is there a template, precedent, or model to assist you with your writing? Using a template is often very helpful as you will already have a set structure. In turn, this will save you time and reduce errors.
Once you've answered these questions, you're ready to begin your draft.
2. Know your audience
In any form of communication, it's important to understand your audience. Legal writing is no exception. And if you want to write persuasively, having a good understanding of your audience is vital. So who is going to read your document? Will it be a judge, a judge’s associate, another lawyer, or a client?
Once you know who your reader is you should also consider how much knowledge of the issue they have. A client will likely have a good understanding of the case and its problems but lack legal knowledge. If you're writing to a judge’s associate at the start of proceedings they might only be vaguely familiar with your case, but they will have an excellent understanding of the law.
Considerations like these will help to decide what the main focus of the document will be. And you'll be better able to draft a document that suits your intended reader - which is crucial if you want to write persuasively.
3. Get organised with an outline
Writing a lengthy document without an outline is like building a house without a floor plan. You could end up with anything! Investing time before you start writing to create an outline will help you create a logical structure for your document. You'll get the chance to organise your thoughts and arguments, and set out a clear direction for your writing.
Often you will follow the structure of introduction, factual background, argument, and conclusion. But what if you're responding to something your opponent has already written? Generally, it's easier to adopt the same structure. In other words, respond to the arguments in the same order that he or she presented them.
Also, for longer legal briefs or court documents, always add a table of contents at the beginning of the document (if the court rules permit this). The table of contents will work as a road map, and make it easier for the reader to jump back and forth in the document without getting lost.
4. Use headings and subheadings
Never underestimate the importance of clear and concise headings and subheadings. Essentially, these will guide your reader through the document. So what are some tips on how you can improve your headings and subheadings?
Section headings and subheadings should state not just the topic or issue, but also the lawyer’s position on it. This way, it will be easier for the reader to understand your argument.
Put headings in bold and use sentence case. Headings that are in all capital letters or where the first letter of each word is capitalised are difficult to read.
Remember, you want to make it as easy as possible for your reader to follow your text, and minimise the guesswork. You can do this by including clear headings and formatting these for optimal readability.
5. Keep it simple
Have you ever heard of KISS? Not the music group that is, but the principle - "keep it simple, stupid". The KISS principle says that you should always strive for simplicity. This principle can be applied to effective legal writing as well. Complex language adds to the reader's cognitive load and means they are more likely to lose focus while reading your document. Something you want to avoid if you want to be persuasive.
So avoid the six-syllable words in favour of short, plain English words. Stay clear of ideas that are hidden in complex syntax, and use clear, short sentences instead. Don't make your reader guess your meaning - make it obvious.
Other ways to simplify your writing include:
Being critical of your legal writing. Always ask yourself, does this paragraph, sentence, or word serve a purpose? If it doesn’t, get rid of it.
Avoiding unnecessary details such as flowery adverbs and adjectives.
Adding white space. Break up big blocks of text into shorter paragraphs. Bullet lists are also great to break up blocks of text. They also have the added extra benefits of being quick to read and easy to remember.
6. Always keep tone in mind
It's important to always be conscious of the tone of your writing. Australian legal practitioners are expected to always be courteous and honest in all dealings in the course of legal practice. A tone that is rude, hostile or condescending is not only unprofessional but you also risk alienating your reader - the very person you are trying to persuade.
So keep your tone objective, respectful and professional. This shows that you're relying on the strength of your arguments. It means you'll be perceived as more credible - and are also likely to be more persuasive.
7. Proof reading
Never forget to proofread your text before you send it. A document that is full of spelling, citation and grammatical errors is frustrating and difficult to read - and not at all persuasive.
Here are some practical tips for proofreading:
Microsoft Spell Check: Although Microsoft's tool for spell checking is helpful it's not perfect. Some mistakes that the spell checker can easily miss include
- “would of” and “would have”;
- “weather” and “whether”;
- “plutonic” and “platonic”;
- “ACN” getting autocorrected to “CAN”.
You can still use spell check, but you should also do your own proofreading to make sure the computer hasn’t missed anything.
Grammar: Grammar has not been taught in Australian schools for many decades. Usually, we absorb grammar from what we read. So if you are unsure about a grammatical point, ask a colleague that is well versed in grammar to proofread your text. There are also plenty of books on modern English grammar - a great addition to your book collection.
Remember, perfect spelling, citations and grammar will not make up for a weak legal argument. But it will prevent an otherwise strong argument being undermined by distracting errors.
Writing is a big part of a lawyer's day-to-day work, and it's one professional skill that always can be improved upon. Taking the time to refine your legal writing is a worthwhile investment as it will improve the clarity and persuasiveness of your communications.
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