As lawyers, we are dependent upon the written word a great deal. Advocates, informers, persuaders, and instructors use words to communicate. Developing superior writing skills can help you succeed, and you can take steps to improve yours. Here are a few tips that can help you do so.
Avoid Common Pitfalls
It’s important to know the difference between being wordy, taking “the long way around”, or just being plain redundant, but don’t forget that there are some basic rules for good writing which people outside of the legal profession might not be aware of.
Be careful during legal drafting when using old cliches like “be that as it may”, and think about what you mean before giving a laundry list of examples that do little more than overwhelm your reader with excess information. Every time you use one of these phrases, realize that you are taking up space that could be used on something else (like an idea instead) while simultaneously making yourself look less intelligent in the process.
Study Your Grammar
It can be easy to ignore the rules that govern English grammar, especially if you’re good at using language efficiently without them (just like many great writers). Most jurisdictions have their own rules for proper capitalization and punctuation, so do some research on the common practices in your area. It’s also possible for people to make mistakes when dealing with numbers, symbols, and special characters like dashes (—). You can learn some of these rules by reading through your clients’ legal documents; others will require further research.
Read the Rules
The rules of punctuation are not nearly as complicated as many people claim them to be (for example, there are only four commonly used landmarks: period, question mark, exclamation point, and ellipsis), but you should still read up on them once in a while. Learning proper usage is easy when you look at examples that show how they interact with each other (for example, how commas help clarify what elements are in a list).
The capitalization rules are much more complicated, but following them will make your text easier to read (for example, never use inappropriate capitalization to try and emphasize something; it’s very distracting). Some of the rules are based on tradition rather than logic (for example, many people still don’t know why acronyms like FBI require initial caps while words like “McDonalds” do not), but they’re still worth paying attention to.
Limit Your Jargon
When you’re writing documents that only a few people in the world can understand, it is tempting to use lots of technical jargon just to increase their clarity. However, most readers have little patience for this sort of thing when reading for pleasure, and they quickly stop paying attention when it appears in your work (this is especially true for readers who aren’t familiar with the subject you’re writing about).
Someone can get away with using lots of jargon in my legal drafting because they’re producing contracts that only other lawyers will read, but they try to avoid this practice when possible because everyday language is much more elegant. Instead of trying to impress people with how many words you know, stick to the basics and focus on clarity.
Find Your Voice
Thriving for perfect, unblemished language is a wonderful way to become a better writer, but don’t forget about your unique legal drafting and writing style. If you want people to enjoy reading what you write, find a voice that feels comfortable and fun for you to use.
Always be Writing
It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a novel, an email to your mom, or something else that’s completely unrelated to the practice of law you should always be writing. If you are not taking time out of your day to have fun with language, then your legal drafting experience will never grow beyond what you learn in school or perhaps from reading other legal documents.
Passive Voice should be Avoided
When using the passive voice, the verb is omitted from the subject, hiding the responsibility for the act. Conversely, active voices clarify your message and tell the reader who is doing the acting. Avoid using passive voice during legal drafting.
Keep Your Audience in Mind
Write every word with the reader in mind. Based on the intended audience of a document, the content and tone may differ greatly between documents encapsulating the same research and message. Briefs submitted to a court must advocate and persuade. Attorneys should draft memoranda that analyze the issue, summarize the law, and offer recommendations to their clients. Consider your audience whenever you are crafting a piece of writing.
Use Your Words to Define Yourself
The better your writing is, the more legal drafting opportunities become available to you (this is true for most things in life). If you can prove that you are an effective communicator by producing high-quality documents (regardless of what they say), this separates you from many of the people around you with similar qualifications who don’t know how to express themselves as well.
You shouldn’t write a novel every time a character asks “can you get me some water?” or “what should we do next?”, but following the tips above will help make sure those other tasks receive the attention they deserve so your resume remains interesting and impressive even after you have been working for a few months.
Make Your Writing Work for You
Don’t be afraid to use your legal drafting as an excuse to learn something new especially if it leads to a better outcome than the original task you were assigned. The more time I spend searching for ways to improve my writing, the less time I need to spend worrying about how bad it is; and now and then I come across something worth sharing which might help someone out.
Writing can always be improved as long as you’re willing to put in the work, and that effort will pay off much sooner than people expect once they see how much you’ve progressed since school and those who already knew what you were capable of at that age will be impressed to see how much you’ve improved.