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Quick Fixes for Common Legal Writing Mistakes


Let's face it: legal writing is difficult. However, there are many quick fixes that can help you to establish a clear, understandable style. Below are my top 20 tips for improving your legal writing.

  1. Defined terms should be consistent. If you tag Bill Smith as "the Plaintiff," call him the Plaintiff throughout the entire document, not "Mr. Brown," "Brown," "Billy" or whatever other name you think will spice up your brief.
  2. If you label something A, there must be a B. If used correctly, headings are a great way to organize your brief and give the reader an overall picture of your argument. Headings and subheading should preview each section of legal text. Further, they should be similar in content, grammar and placement.
  3. Avoid conclusory language. A conclusion, standing alone, will not persuade your reader. To build a persuasive argument, you must cite to the specific facts and legal authorities that support your conclusion. You cannot simply tell the reader that "the Defendant was clearly negligent." Rather, you must provide the reader with the facts and reasons necessary for him to conclude that the Defendant was indeed negligent.
  4. Avoid superfluous language and use plain English. Although every legal education includes the mastering legal terms, part of becoming an effective legal writer is shedding the archaic, the legalese, and the Latin. Too often, those legal words do nothing but make the text sound like a lawyer wrote it. Usually, there are many more effective, reader friendly alternatives that say the same thing. A good rule of thumb is to use legal words correctly but sparingly, and only when necessary.
  5. Avoid colloquialism. Legal writing is formal writing. Therefore, you cannot simply write how you might talk in ever day, casual conversation. Most importantly, slang should always be avoided. For example, it would be inappropriate to write, "Mr. Brown kicked the bucket on X date." You should simply write, "Mr. Brown died on X date."
  6. Avoid being catty, snide or sarcastic. It makes you look childish, immature and unprofessional. It does not add anything to your legal argument. Moreover, judges despise it!
  7. Ensure dates, names and amounts are consistent. This simply requires careful attention to detail. I suggest reading through your draft and checking that all of the names are consistent, i.e. you have not started referring to "James Smith" as "Jim Smith" halfway through the brief. Next, check that your dates are accurate and in chronological order, if applicable. Finally, double-check any monetary amounts, paying special attention to any parenthetical numerical amounts and their corresponding written amounts.
  8. Triple check references to exhibits and affidavits. As with the above, this is primarily an exercise in proofreading and organization. Although it is often tedious, it can prevent embarrassment down the road. You do not want the judge to have to look through all of your exhibits because you mistakenly referred to the demand letter as "Exhibit A" when it is really "Exhibit C."
  9. Commas and periods go inside quotations. Commas and periods go inside quotes. Always. No exceptions. Quotation marks are used incorrectly in so much legal—and non-legal—writing that most people aren't sure what is in fact correct. To further confuse writers, the opposite is true in British English!
  10. Beware of over-chronicling. Some dates are very important, but most are not. When the date of every event is listed, it is difficult for the reader to discern which, if any, are relevant to the merits of the case. So unless the exact date is important and should be remembered by the reader, leave it out.
  11. Show, don 't tell! In your fact section, include concrete examples and citations to relevant documents. This is far more convincing than your opinion or characterization of the facts.
  12. Words like "obviously" and "clearly" hurt more than help your writing. If you have to emphasize your argument with these words, chances are your argument is not very strong is the first place. Although it seems paradoxical, eliminating these words from your writing actually makes it stronger and enhances your credibility.
  13. "It's" means "it is." "Its" means "belonging to it." Enough said.
  14. Resist the temptation to use a large word when a small one will do. For example, in most situations, the word "use" is fine and the word "utilize" is a bit much.
  15. Be brief and to the point. You do not want the reader to be exhausted, physically or mentally, by the time he or she is done reading your brief. I have yet to put down a brief and say, 'I wish that had been longer,' U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has said.
  16. Always give the pinpoint page cite. Should you not give the pinpoint page cite, it suggests to the judge that you are either lazy or that you have accurately recited the holding of the case.
  17. Don 't be bossy. Avoid telling the court what it "must" or "cannot" do. Instead, simply assert that the court should not hesitate to grant the relief your client seeks.
  18. The Bluebook is your friend. When it doubt as to a legal citation, look it up. The Bluebook is surprisingly user friendly. Never rely on the citations given in published opinions or by legal research tools, as they are not always correct.
  19. Save ample time for proofreading. Typographical mistakes, grammatical errors and incorrect citations can harm your credibility. Take the time to carefully proofread your document and do not simply rely on your word processor 's spell and grammar check as they miss many errors. If possible, ask a friend or colleague to review the brief as well.
  20. Revise and rewrite, repeat as necessary. It often takes several drafts to attain the virtues of brevity and clarity. Even when you think you have arrived at the final product, take some time and then revisit the draft so you can better evaluate it with a fresh eye.

There you have it. I hope my perspective helps you to refine your legal writing skill set. Like any discipline, it takes a lot of practice and trial-and-error, but with time you should be able to master these quick fixes.

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