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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Finding the Right Editor For Your Legal Writing Project


If his writing gig hadn't worked out so well, chances are Shakespeare may have made a fine legal editor in his day. Also likely true: He may have had to dial it back a few notches to comport with the more pragmatic goals of his clientele. Consider the following quote:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: It is twice bless'd;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway.
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

Portia, disguised as young lawyer Balthazar in a Venetian Court of Justice, The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, scene 1

Let's face it: Legal editing represents a unique conundrum. Whether mercy, or something else entirely, is the goal, an attorney or other legal professional who is seeking to hire an editor is looking for that unique individual who understands much is often at stake, and every phrase carries import.

If you're searching for someone to edit legal text, first look for an individual who understands that caution and accuracy are paramount. After all, you're not producing a promotional press release or an advertisement. Rather, you're seeking assistance with documents that may well be placed under a microscope, scrutinized under the bright and unrelenting eyes of the court as well as opposing counsel. Under these circumstances, cute and catchy are rarely considerations. Rather, compelling is the watchword.

What is the definition of compelling? According to Merriam-Webster, compelling is first defined as "forceful," as in a compelling personality. Secondly, it is defined as "demanding attention." Finally, compelling is defined as "convincing." All three definitions may prove relevant in a legal document. The nature of the editorial approach should largely depend on guidance provided by you, the client. Bear in mind, however, that even a recitation of "just the facts" can be made more compelling under the guidance of a skilled legal editor.

"Whereas the law is passionless, passion must ever sway the heart of man." Aristotle

Although your work is based in fact, you nonetheless seek to tell a great story that supports your overarching objectives as concisely as possible. Consider asking potential editors for samples of their own writing—in addition to their editing—that demonstrate an ability to forge a convincing narrative. A good editor is, first and foremost, an experienced, thoughtful writer, and this may prove the most effective test in determining compatibility. In almost any argument, you must convince your audience to care about what you have to say if you hope to prevail. A good editor will advance this cause.

When seeking editorial assistance for legal writing, also make certain any candidate under consideration understands and acknowledges your concerns. You may be looking for an editor to help unravel complex grammatical constructions, enhance clarity, and address inconsistencies and redundancies in the text. Most likely, you're not looking for heavy-handed editing that runs the risk of changing the meaning of the language. Make absolutely certain anyone you hire is aware of this and other editorial boundaries. Humility is a virtue when editing legal text. Editors are not attorneys, and respect for the original source of the information is critical. Look for an editor who is comfortable asking questions when necessary before altering text, especially in the early stages of your professional relationship.

At the same time, take steps to ensure the editor you choose is competent enough to get the job done with questions kept to a minimum. Seek a well-organized individual who is capable of independently addressing the lion's share of issues that arise. If you find yourself constantly beset by queries and delays, the arrangement may be of little benefit to you. More than likely, you're already buried under a mountain of unrelenting deadlines, with precious little time to spare.

Consider the merits of an "ink-stained wretch"

It's possible that former journalists may be uniquely suited for legal editing. There may well be some parallels between your goal of ensuring accuracy and consistency and the old journalist's credo: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." A journalist may also help to ensure that you've addressed the five Ws—who, what, when, where and why—in your argument. In summary, look for mature editors whose credentials mirror your values and objectives.

You'll want to find an editor who pays close attention to the substance of headings and subheadings—critical navigational tools in your work—ensuring key arguments are not buried in text that may otherwise be overlooked. Any editor you choose should be able to carefully examine your document, making certain that the narrative is logical and chronologically ordered when appropriate. A strong editor will also be able to identify and eradicate redundancies and superfluous adjectives that bog down your argument. Any inconsistencies in the text—whether factual or structural in nature—should be found and fixed by your editor. If you're interested in ensuring correct legal citations, you'll also need to make certain that the editor you choose is versed in this specialized field and is also able to adapt to potential jurisdictional peculiarities.

Availability, volume, deadlines and pricing are all key considerations in your choice of an editor. How quickly can the editor respond when a rush project arises? Given the heavy workload in most law practices when it comes to document production, it may be wise to inquire about the number of pages an editor is capable of reviewing per workday, as well as weekend availability. Make clear your expectations so that the editor is ready when projects are assigned. You may also want to discuss the need to adjust editing approaches when there simply isn't time for an "ideal" review. In practice, this is a common dilemma. Can your editor focus exclusively on major issues when you have an expedited project? Candidates who demonstrate inflexibility may prove problematic when a critical document is in play. Also iron out pricing arrangements for all contingencies beforehand. It's one less thing to worry about when an emergency deadline looms, and it will help your editor plan accordingly.

"The pen is mightier than the sword." Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Finally, technical savvy is a definite plus. If your voluminous document requires a table of contents that spans several pages, will your editor be able to quickly produce it? Ask about this and other technical skills that really matter when you're faced with unforgiving deadlines. Also inquire about approaches to proofreading. For instance, how will your editor address inconsistencies in the spelling of names and potential grammatical errors in citations? It's important to have these discussions up front so that your editor realizes such issues in legal text may pose unique problems. For instance, if they appear in a direct quote or a citation from an existing ruling, such problems should be left alone.

Here again, humility and caution are virtues in your legal editor, because if these errors and inconsistencies are altered, it may render your citation factually inaccurate. You may hire a very good editor who does not know such things. Help them to excel by creating a list of the more esoteric aspects of your written projects, and stress the importance of adherence to the integrity of your work.

Whether you're drafting a brief or a letter to a client, take the proper steps to ensure that the editor you choose helps advance your goals in all of your written work. Toward that end, ten important questions for potential legal editors follow:

  1. Is the editor familiar with the The Bluebook?
  2. Does the editor have a proper legal dictionary? You might ask candidates if they're familiar with Black's Law Dictionary or another personal favorite.
  3. Can the editor provide examples of legal documents successfully edited?
  4. Does the editor demonstrate an understanding of basic legal issues?
  5. Can the editor navigate the intricacies of a court filing if necessary?
  6. Does the editor understand the structural elements of most legal documents?
  7. Can the editor create or edit headings and subheadings, produce a table of contents, create or edit footnotes, and perform other technical work necessary to finalize documents?
  8. Does the editor recognize the importance of proofreading at the final stages to ensure absolute accuracy?
  9. If volume is a consideration, can the editor complete all work in a timely manner?
  10. Finally, are the terms of the arrangement, including pricing, deadlines and expectations, agreeable to both parties?

Additional online resources

Several online guides outline the "how to's" of legal writing. A few helpful links for editors as well as clients are listed below. The last is just for kicks.

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