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Summary: After college and law school, as legal professionals, we should have by now mastered the art of writing compelling prose. In fact, we need to have mastered it, or else our careers could be in jeopardy.
Clear and accurate writing is essential to a legal career.
In fact, scholars will say that with writing and law, the brief with less used words, will always be the strongest.
Continue with this article to see how you can improve your legal writing.
Cliché:a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought
After college and law school, as legal professionals, we should have by now mastered the art of writing compelling prose. In fact, we need to have mastered it, or else our careers could be in jeopardy. How would we take each other seriously in the field if we couldn’t express our thoughts on paper? How could our clients trust us? And yet, we often see legal documentation with flashy language, and unnecessary legal terms, in an attempt to show off one’s vocabulary and boast about their industry knowledge.
We all have a friend that uses big words to sound smart. What is the best way to sound smart? Be concise. The Purdue Owl Writing Lab discusses the benefits of succinct writing:
“The goal of concise writing is to use the most effective words. Concise writing does not always have the fewest words, but it always uses the strongest ones. Writers often fill sentences with weak or unnecessary words that can be deleted or replaced. Words and phrases should be deliberately chosen for the work they are doing. Like bad employees, words that don't accomplish enough should be fired. When only the most effective words remain, writing will be far more concise and readable.”
It is time we sat down and examined some common phrases in the legal industry that we can do without:
Honorable:used as a title indicating eminence or distinction, given especially to judges and certain high officials
I have to admit, this one is pretty ridiculous. Court is a professional setting and should be treated as such. Judges should be treated with respect in their office but we do not need to take things overboard. We are not pleading with the King of England and this is not some seventeenth-century trial. While you may think that judges enjoy being so honorably mentioned, it can come off as brown-nosing instead of winning your case by traditional means—like proving your argument with evidence and research maybe?
“It is my ambition to say in 10 sentences what others say in a whole book.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
Pursuant To:in accordance with
This phrase is abhorred throughout the industry and abhorred by many long-time professionals. The phrase slips into legal documentation, as it seems like an easy way to distinguish that you know what you are doing as an attorney. Newsflash—“the rule-making body for federal courts has been stamping it out for more than a decade”, remarks Bryan Garner. I think it is time to let this one go.
“Brevity is the sister of talent” - Anton Chehov
Foregoing:just mentioned or stated
This turn of phrase is a fancy way to say, “referencing”. It does not add anything of value or clarity to your statement. Rarely is there a case when your audience doesn’t remember a person or noun that you mentioned
If you are working on a court case dealing with numbers in the upper thousands or millions, then this can be necessary to ensure any mistakes are caught in the document right away.
As we know, most legal professionals don’t work for corporations and we can safely leave out the set of parenthesis. Who wants to spend the extra money on ink anyway?
“Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination.”- Louise Brooks
I understand that there may be a need to speak to the small irregularities of the English language. For example, cease-and-desist may seem like a necessary doublet because the words cease and desist do, in fact, mean two slightly different things. If your court case does not specifically deal with ceasing something, try using a different phrase to get to the point. Some of these phrases have been around long enough that they have grown to mean the same thing anyways.
“Clarity of thought is a must for brevity in speech.” - Somali K. Chakrabarti
What is wrong with just saying before? Does the word “before” not convey the message clearly enough. I see the words prior to used a lot by professionals seeking to heighten their writing by inserting unnecessary phrases like this all of the time. I have so many issues with this. For one, the phrase takes a short concise word, “before”, and makes it unnecessarily winded.
“Brevity is the soul of wit”- Shakespeare
In the Event That:should it happen that
One of my least favorite phrases on this list, this phrase takes unnecessary to a whole new level. When an entire phrase can be replaced with one word (how about just saying “if”?) then you know something is not right. Instead of a legal professional, I think of a high school student who needs to fluff their term paper to meet the word requirement.
“Brevity in writing is very powerful” - Lance Greenfield
Hereinafter:further on in this document
This is another statement that clearly underestimates the logical ability of your reader. Hereinafter implies that they may not understand when you suddenly start referring to John Campbell as Mr. Campbell later within the document. Even though in all other forms of print and storytelling, it is easy to make this distinction without someone pointing it out. I do acknowledge that there are cases where this technique may be useful; such as when there may be two Campbell in the story, but if that is not the case, please leave it out. We can figure it out on our own.
“Whatever advice you give, be brief” - Horace, Arte Poetica
Again, this wording implies that your audience has forgotten what they read earlier in the document, so we remind them again with the insertion of the above-mentioned statement. This tactic is unnecessary. I can think of few situations where this may actually help the reader to understand the context of the paragraph. We already invented a tool for this, called the footnote, where we can give extra context or definitions at the bottom of the page. Here the information is available without fluffing out the document.
“The secret to good writing is to use small words for big ideas, not to use big words for small ideas.” - Oliver Markus
Poorly Used Metaphors: See examples below
This is one fault that is universal across professions and industries. Metaphors have their place in writing. They give detail to a story or provide vivid imagery. Sometimes they can be used to help explain a difficult concept. I have provided a list of overused metaphors below:
Can of Worms
Fall Through the Cracks
Second Bite at the Apple
Get Down To Brass Tacks
Improve Your Legal Writing
Now that you have an idea of what not to include in your writing, let’s take a look at some techniques that can boost your overall writing effectiveness. We will take a lesson from Valerie T. McGinthy, a professional who focuses on “affirming plaintiffs’ judgments and reversing summary judgments. She was also nominated for the CAOC’s 2015 Consumer Attorney of the Year Award.
In her article, Legal Writing: Brevity, Clarity, and Honesty, McGinthy expands on four steps that will “make everything you write more effective”. Legal writing style is especially important for multiple reasons:
“Writing persuasively is a challenge for three reasons: (1) it’s complex - the law is complex, the facts are complex, the application of the law to the facts is complex; (2) writing lacks the cues of the spoken word such as gestures, eye contact, body language, and tone of voice; and (3) your reader may be distracted by phone calls meetings, text messages, television, e-mails, and social obligations.”
McGinthy emphasizes a critical point to consider while developing written content, which is to write for your audience. Every time you put words down, you must think of how a reader will interpret your work and engage with the material. To this end, she specifically suggests avoiding “jargon and complicated constructions” because this “style could insult your reader; make your writing hard to comprehend; or make the reader distrust you — defeating your goal of being liked, helpful, and trustworthy”. Her helpful writing tips can be broken down into four main points:
Place an Assertive Heading on Every Page
When selecting a heading, be sure to guide your reader through the document with clearly labeled and directional “signposts” at the top of every page. The author advocates that we should declare our point of view in the heading, which further adds clarity to your stance on the issue. Be sure to make your heading a complete sentence with a capital at the beginning and a period at the end. You may bold your heading, but whatever you do, please do not put it in capital letters. Capital letters worked well before the digital age, but in today's world, they have come to signify anger or shouting.
Add a Table of Contents to Every Brief
As with any professional report or document, it is always a good idea to include a table of contents. This is the very first impression of your document and your reader will get a quick idea of where your writing will take them—a journey through your argument—if you will. Most excel programs have the capability to automatically place all of your headings into a neat table of contents. Once you do this, you can skim your own headings to see if your document flows nicely or if it needs to be rearranged at all.
Delete Hollow Modifiers
Hollow modifiers include words such as “clearly”, “essentially”, and “many”. According to the author, “ hollow modifiers impede brevity because they take up space without communicating any new information to the reader”. The ten words we listed earlier fit into this category. Some additional examples include: “absolutely, certainly, clearly, completely, definitely, entirely, essentially, extremely, many, obviously, plainly, purely, several, seriously, totally, utterly, virtually.”
Edit for Brevity
The main point of this entire article could be summed up here—focus on brevity. Take time to figure out what you want to say and communicate it as well as you can in as few words as you can.
When you start to think like this, you will notice that you begin to choose stronger words that better depict the things you are trying to convey. Your writing will become more concise and your arguments will have more weight. To help cut down on excess verbiage in your writing, have a colleague revise your drafts and cross out as much unnecessary information as they can. Using this strategy, you can improve your document considerably.
If you begin to notice redundant phrases or unnecessary wording in your speaking or writing, now is the time to change your habits and improve your communication skills. Writing is a skill that always has room for improvement and takes continuous effort to stay up to date. One thing remains constant throughout time and that is the effectiveness of concise, well-written prose.
All of the greatest writers throughout history have remarked on the benefits of writing in this style. Feel free to look back on the quotations sprinkled throughout this article for inspiration. Readers can catch on to topics easily and their attention remains transfixed, which is critically important in the fast-paced media-driven environment of today. Remember, you are competing for the attention of your reader against texting, social media, and television!