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Experts Speak

14 Principles for Effective Legal Writing

Short sentences for complex thoughts 

Try to stick to the “One sentence, one idea” rule. Don’t cram a lot of important ideas into one place. Readers will have a hard time grasping the essence of what you wanted to convey, and this can play a cruel trick on the legal profession. If you don’t have enough air to finish reading one sentence, you need to break it up into several smaller ones. Try to use fewer subordinating conjunctions.

Active voice verbs

In legal writing, it’s crucial to make the doer of the action the subject of the verb. This way, it will be easier for the readers of your texts to understand all the nuances of the case. Moreover, the active verb form has a stronger impact than the passive form, and sentences become shorter. 

Get rid of unnecessary words

First and foremost, remove superfluous adjectives and adverbs that don’t carry meaning and can’t affect the outcome of the case. Moreover, replace difficult phrases with separate words if the situation allows.  

Like any other field, the legal industry also has an active vocabulary. Unfortunately, most complex legal words and phrases can make a text too pretentious, abstruse, and hard to understand. Try to avoid, simplify, or replace them as much as possible with synonyms. Jargonisms, Latin phrases, or outdated expressions will not play into your hands. Many lawyers use them to make themselves seem smarter, but they forget their main goal: to make sure all parties to the case understand. 

Avoid abstract language and ambiguity

In the world of justice and order, using inaccuracies, abstract concepts, and expressions that evoke mixed feelings and understanding indicates unprofessionalism. Always give precise and explicit data, not some ephemeral concepts. 

Punctuation marks 

If you can’t do without complex sentences, try to place punctuation correctly. Do not abound with a comma, and put a semicolon in two independent sentences.

Be clear about the purpose 

Your text always has a purpose. Your knowledge of your target audience and your purpose will influence the style, tone, and form of your writing. Always clearly state the main point that makes sense of your message and place it prominently. Use proper text structure to help your audience understand your message. Support your sentences with examples and references to sources as evidence. This will help illustrate your points. Your text should be logically coherent, so it is important to use linking words. 

Take care of your audience

Time is money, so try to keep your thoughts short and simple. If you can formulate the essence of your message in one sentence, you don’t need to stretch it into three paragraphs. 

Proofread your texts out loud 

Proofreading legal documents improve their quality greatly. First, you will be able to find grammatical and spelling errors. Second, it will help you avoid verbosity and confusing constructions. If you go back to the beginning of a sentence or another paragraph because you’ve lost the narrative thread, that’s a red flag to edit that part of the text. 

Avoid nominalization

The verb as a noun leads to the difficulty of perception, increases the size of the sentence, and so can lead to ambiguity. From a grammatical point of view, nominalization is quite natural and correct. However, it negatively affects the perception of information and reduces the effectiveness of legal texts.

Stick to chronological order 

You should always provide data and describe events in chronological order. This gives the reader clarity about the sequence. Continually jumping from one incident to the next can confuse the reader and lead to the wrong conclusions.

Document formatting 

The way you format your document affects the overall perception of your audience. For example, you should choose a readable font of a comfortable size and stick to it throughout your work. Use headings and subheadings to distinguish important parts of your text, thereby helping the reader navigate through your document. For ease of reading, you should use formatting and include lists, highlight important parts of sentences in bold, italics, underlines, etc. 

Sources cited 

Using sources always strengthens the power of your arguments. However, you should always double-check the accuracy and legitimacy of the material you use. 

Test the understanding 

If you’re still learning how to write legal texts and are worried about whether you’re making sense, there’s a way to test it. Set aside your written work and let someone who has nothing to do with the law read it. Ask follow-up questions and clarify exactly what was unclear. This way, you can improve your legal writing. 

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by Renette Hankins

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