8 September, 2023
Effective communication is beneficial no matter what industry you work in. For those who work in the legal field, it is essential. Lawyers and other legal professionals know that every word written and arranged must be able to stand up to scrutiny. In fact, there are times when an entire court case can hinge on a comma.
Clear legal writing is so important that the government created an act around it: The 2010 Plain Writing Act requires that federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand.
This emphasis on clarity isn’t just a guideline for official agencies; it’s a principle that should guide all writers across all industries. So how do you write more effectively? The first step is understanding who you are writing for.
This article by the American Bar Association (ABA) gives the reader a few questions to ponder about their potential audience:
- Who is my reader?
- What is my reader’s relationship to me?
- Why am I writing this?
Once you have a better understanding of who your audience is and what they want to learn, you can better determine what information to include and how to present it.
In this article, we will cover five legal writing tips for non-lawyers that can be utilized across professions that intersect with the law. These include how to write in an active voice versus a passive voice and why it’s important to physically alter your document before you reread it.
1. Use Simple Verbiage and an Active Voice
Though it’s tempting to use complicated words, writing in plain English tends to be the most effective. Plain English is a communication that provides information in a clean, simple manner. It uses everyday language and avoids technical terms and complex sentence structures. The goal of plain English is to make information accessible to a wide range of readers, no matter their expertise or background.
“Be mindful of your audience and use the appropriate tone when communicating with others,” advises Anne Hudson, adjunct faculty and senior faculty research librarian at DePaul College of Law. “That will set the stage for whatever specific document you are producing.”
Keep clarity in mind when evaluating word choice and do not include unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.
In addition, it is important to write in an active voice versus a passive voice. An active voice begins with the subject followed by the verb and the object. For example, Jack played basketball is an active sentence. A passive voice begins with the object and ends with the subject. Basketball was played by Jack is a passive sentence. An active writing voice is more clear and confident.
2. Make Easy Transitions From One Idea to the Next
A document often includes a number of different ideas. It is important to be able to connect these ideas with simple transitions. One way to do this is by using connector words and phrases, which serve as guideposts for your readers. These words and phrases fall into different categories.
Connector words like “but” and “although” show how the next idea is different from the first idea. The connector phrase “for that same reason” lets your reader know that the next idea corresponds with the first one. And a connector phrase like “in addition” tells your reader that you are going to add on to the original idea.
Writing short sentences is another way to make your writing clearer. Short sentences allow your readers to process one idea at a time. If you need inspiration to write clearly, look no further than from business magnate and investor Warren Buffet, who is lauded for his succinct and accessible writing style on financial briefs.
3. Stand By Your Work (and Stop Using Modal Words)
Lawyers must establish credibility through their words. If a lawyer leans on words that make them sound uncertain or even evasive, they risk undermining their position in a negotiation, argument or legal dispute. They need to make sure their words are as decisive as possible.
Words like “might,” “maybe,” “perhaps,” and “can” are called modal words. They signal that other possibilities or insights are possible. While there are situations that require ambiguity, using more definite language makes you come across as confident and decisive. It also makes it clear that you stand by your statements and ideas.
The use of modal words is not always bad—there are times when you will need to express possibility, conditional situations or even uncertainty (see our tip on understanding your audience). The key is to use modal words judiciously.
4. Read Your Work Again and Again
In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, author Anne Lamott devotes a whole chapter to the necessity of writing less-than-stellar first drafts. When you first put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) it’s easy to get excited about a concept and to miss words or fail to make connections between ideas. For these reasons, rereading your work is vital.
The first step to gaining clarity is to take some time away from what you’ve written. This allows you to see your project with fresh eyes.
Next, change the document visually to trick your mind into thinking someone else wrote it. When you’ve been working on a piece for a long time, your mind will fill in words that are missing on the page. In order to read the document as something new, consider doing the following:
– Print out the document instead of reading it on screen
– Use a different type of font
– Change the color of the current font
By making small visual changes to the document, your mind responds as it would to someone else’s work, which gives you a better chance of catching small mistakes.
Another way to review your work is by reading it out loud. You can do this yourself or by using a text-to-speech feature. Seeing a sentence on a page and hearing it spoken will change your perception of the writing. You will hear how your words flow in a way that you couldn’t get just by reading them in your head.
5. Practice to Improve
“The only way to improve your legal writing or any kind of writing is to keep doing it.”–Julie Schrager, legal writing coach at Schiff Hardin LLP, 10 Tips For Better Legal Writing
Whether you want to improve your basketball game or you want to become proficient at playing the oboe, the same advice applies: practice.
Use the tips throughout this article when writing your next document, and remember that it takes time to change a habit. Give yourself the opportunity to concentrate on updating one or two things, like simplifying your words or writing clearer transitions. Once you feel comfortable with a new aspect of writing, you can incorporate an additional suggestion.
About the DePaul College of Law Master of Legal Studies program
The online Master of Legal Studies (MLS) from the DePaul College of Law provides professionals the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the complex legal landscape, understand legal research and collaborate with legal advisors.
Our curriculum covers essential legal topics such as research and writing, regulatory compliance, negotiation, communication and organizational management. With three concentration options available in data privacy and cybersecurity law, business law and general legal studies, students can tailor their education to their specific interests and career goals.
Courses are taught by dedicated faculty who are working lawyers and renowned legal scholars. They embed interactive learning components into the coursework, including simulation exercises, practice-based assignments which allow students to hone their skills before applying them to their own workplaces.
Applicants from all backgrounds are welcome; no prior legal experience and no test scores are required to apply. Through our professional experience waiver, students can receive up to six credit hours (out of the 30 required for the degree) based on their relevant work experience, allowing them to earn their degree in a shorter time frame.