Tips for effective legal writing
10 October 2019
Just as there’s an art to writing great fiction, crafting an excellent essay and reporting an informative piece of journalism, so too there’s a particular skill to master when it comes to effective legal writing.
What is legal writing? In its broadest sense, legal writing is the production of information that is used to aid decisions and support arguments in the legal industry. This could range from the production of legal documents, to the presentation of findings to a magistrate or judge, to the drafting of academic papers.
More specifically, legal writing is the telling of a story, supported by clear evidence and by case studies, that summarises, argues or comes to a conclusion about a particular point.
Importantly, legal writing is about facts. While the carrying out of any form of writing can be said to be a creative pursuit, legal writing is not commonly known as ‘creative writing’. Every point that is made must be backed up by fact.
So how does somebody entering the legal writing field ensure their writing doesn’t let them down? Here are our top tips for powerful legal writing.
1) Focus on your audience
Who is your audience? Who will be reading this document, and what purpose does it serve for them? Is it a summary for a clerk or is it supporting an argument that is being presented in the High Court? Is it to inform a partner in your firm around a project on which they’re working or is it to educate or brief a young client?
Just as a journalist writes in a different style – using a specific level and type of language, layout, storytelling and information – for different audiences, you too must shape your writing around your audience.
Some writers go as far as putting a picture of their reader in front of them as they write, ensuring their words are always speaking to that individual. This doesn’t mean you should carry around a photo of the actual individual. Instead, think of whether your core reader is a 65-year-old, male, Australian accountant, or a 17-year-old, Chinese, female athlete, etc. Figure out what they want from the document and how that information is best delivered. That’s your starting point.
2) Be grammatically correct
If you’re unsure about grammatical rules, consider a course or at least buy a few grammatical guide books. A misplaced apostrophe, an errant hyphen or a missed comma can change the meaning of a sentence. This may not be too much of a problem on a social media page, but in the legal world it can cause serious issues.
Plus, the people you’re writing for are likely competent writers. It will colour their opinion of your professionalism and attention to detail if you deliver second-rate work.
3) Don’t use flowery language
Once again, legal writing is not creative writing. The role of a great legal writer is to clearly communicate the facts. This can only be achieved with the efficient use of plain language. Keep it simple by utilising short sentences. Include one idea per paragraph and stick to the point.
4) Begin at the end
The beginning of a piece of legal writing should set the scene, telling the reader the intention of the work, the process you’ll be taking them through and the conclusion you will draw.
Revealing the ending at the beginning seems illogical. After all, it’s not the way authors write a book. But most factual pieces of writing, including journalistic news pieces and academic reports, put the most important information upfront. In that way they prepare the reader’s mind for the result. Then the rest of the piece is about presenting the evidence and research to support and justify that result.
Of course, there must also be a conclusion to wrap up the work. But beginning with the conclusion is an important way to warm up the reader for the journey you’ll be taking them on, and the route you’ll be following.
5) Avoid jargon
For very good reason, the legal language contains specific terms that must be correctly used. Jargon and colloquial terms remove clarity from the document at best and, at worst, change the meaning and cause major misunderstandings for the reader.
An excellent place to start, to ensure style matches what is expected in the Australian legal arena, is the Australian Guide to Legal Citation (Melbourne University Law Review Association, 4th ed, 2018). A commonly recognised style guide that is an essential tool for anybody who is regularly carrying out legal writing assignments.
6) Consider how your work is presented
You’ve conducted your research on the reader, and you know exactly what they want from your legal writing. The next thing to do is to establish the format in which the information will be most easily delivered. How can you make it easier to digest? What information should be laid out in point form, for instance. And how much needs to be explained in running text?
Often, complex ideas are better understood when they are broken down into simpler parts. Subheadings might help the reader to navigate those parts (as is the case with the piece you’re reading right now).
In other cases, greater explanation is required, so it’s important the reader is kept within the same thought flow. In that case, don’t break up the text with bullet points or subheads. Instead, simply use running text in normal paragraphs.
7) Care deeply about the words
Although it’s sometimes easy to forget, there is a very human side to legal writing. The work you’re doing matters a great deal to somebody, whether it be the client, a colleague, or an individual or family who will be affected by the decision that results from the work.
If you treat it with the care that it deserves, from the preparation to the research, to the layout and the writing itself, then many people will likely benefit – including you.
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