I remember the time as a young lawyer when the partner on the file returned a brief to me that looked like someone had bled all over it. She had made liberal use of her red pen. I vowed to never let that happen again.
Here are 7 tips to improve your legal writing.
- Be a cold-blooded editor. The most important thing you can do to improve your writing is to write, re-write and rewrite again. You can enhance any draft by simply re-writing it several times. Don’t stay in love with what you just wrote. Try hard to eliminate words and sentences. Keep asking yourself how you can be more succinct. Challenge each word you have written. Is it really necessary to include this word?
- Focus on using concrete words. After the hard work of law school and a few years in the practice, our minds are full of legal principles and legal phrases: fiduciary duty, subject matter jurisdiction, assignable interests, etc. We tend to fall back on using these phrases, but this is a bad idea when it comes to legal writing. They drain your document of zeal and energy. So rather than, “the defendant clearly and intentionally perpetrated a fraud,” write “the defendant committed fraud;” Not “I am in receipt of your correspondence,” but “I received your letter.”
- We have all been schooled to use the active voice. Let’s review what that means. The active voice puts the actor in the front part of the sentence and informs the reader who is doing the act. Instead of “a fraud was committed by the defendant,” say “the defendant committed fraud.” Another example is “the filing deadline was missed by the client.” The active voice is “the client missed the filing deadline.”
- Make generous use of bullets and headlines. It’s always a good idea to outline your document. Use the outline to determine the headlines of your memo or brief. The headlines will guide the reader through the document. And bullets are great way to be succinct and punchy. As a senior lawyer, I hated getting documents with really long paragraphs. All too often, I had to break up paragraphs and insert headlines.
- Avoid double negatives. These are awkward and hard to follow. This goes hand in hand with writing short, succinct sentences.
- Give your document life. What I mean is that you should generously identify the people involved and tell the reader who did what to whom. Don’t get bogged down in bloodless detachment. Try to put people and events in each sentence.
- Read quality writing. It may be counterintuitive to begin by talking about reading before writing, but one of the ways to hone your writing skills is to read outstanding examples of writing. Read the Economist, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. You will intuitively absorb good writing techniques.
To learn more about ways to improve your writing, please check out my Legal Ally Rainmaker program.