Written legal English can’t be improved by ‘tips’ or ‘hints’ – there are no easy fixes. Let me explain why.
You might have read articles saying “7 ways to improve your legal drafting skills” or “12 writing tips for legal English” and think that this is easy. Great! A quick fix. I wish knowing how to improve your legal English writing skills could be as easy as ‘reading’ a solution and hoping that ‘just reading tips’ will fix your writing. However, years of indoctrination with bad legal English takes a long time to fight against. Years of learning bad writing habits take years to undo.
The honest truth is that there are no easy fixes to improving your legal writing skills. Instead, there are tried and tested methods and principles which you have to: learn, understand, and practice. This takes time, and there is a lot to learn. In this post, I’ll highlight the four most important principles, but be aware, each of them involves months or years of work to apply them correctly and actually improve your legal English writing. The four most important principles you need to know to improve your writing are to:
- understand what written communication is,
- know the needs of the reader/readers you’re writing to,
- look for feedback, and
- learn the principles of “plain English” and use them.
Understand what written communication is.
There are 2 parts to writing. Within a business or legal context, one of these is much more important than the other.
- Part 1. The purpose of written communication is to communicate something to someone else.
- Part 2. The reader will understand what you’ve written, in the way the writer intended it to be understood.
Part 2 is much more important than part 1.
If Part 2 doesn’t happen (the reader phones you up asking for clarification), what’s the point in Part 1 (you write a beautiful, sophisticated memo you’re proud of)?
If you concentrate on part 1 (as most writers do), your ego, education, experience or lack of planning, might stop part 2 from happening. This is where most legal language fails as legal writers think they are ‘showing off’ their skills by producing impenetrable writing. However, this is writing that the reader has difficulty understanding or simply does not know what the message is.
And understanding is key. If the reader can’t understand your writing, you’re wasting your time and most importantly, the reader’s time. Think about this from a business context – will your client return to you or promote you if you write in a way that they can’t understand?
Further, the understanding has to be what you intended. Bad writing allows a text to be misinterpreted accidentally or deliberately. There are thousands of court cases that are fought over: words, intended or implied meanings, punctuation, etc. All this could be avoided if the text was written in a better way.
Learning how to focus on Part 2 takes time and practice. It is not something that most people can do without training, but it is something that can be improved over time with the correct training.
Know the needs of the reader/readers you’re writing to.
Other writing guides will say something like “know your audience” which, unfortunately, is quite abstract. What does it mean to “know your audience?” You know who your audience is – it could be a judge, a client, opposition counsel, or the general public. So, how does knowing something you already know help your writing?
What this piece of advice should say is: know the needs of your audience. Now, this is a different question. This forces you to ask yourself, “I’m writing because the person who will read this will want something from this” or “where will the reader see value in what I’m writing?”
If the reader sees the value in your writing in relation to the reader’s business, they will come back to you. If the reader directly benefits from your writing, they will come back to you. If a judge can see a coherent well-argued position that is persuasive, they are more likely to find in your favour.
There are many readers that look for different values or benefits in writing, so there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to writing. Your writing has to change depending on the reader’s perceived needs. Therefore, not only will you have to practice understanding the needs of your readers, you’ll need to practice a range of writing skills to meet the needs of your readers.
Look for feedback.
For most business or legal writing, you don’t get feedback. However, you can ask your peers for feedback or imply feedback in different ways.
Generally speaking, in most firms, there are one or two recognised ‘good writers’. If it’s possible, ask them to review your texts and give you feedback. If you are working in a hierarchy, ask the person up the chain to review your writing. Alternatively, in some cases, asking the people at the same level as you is also helpful. Why?
Learning how to review your own work is difficult. You’re too invested in it to see the mistakes you make, and all your arguments make sense to you – you wrote it after all. So the only way to review your writing (with the aim of improving your writing) is to:
- learn the basic rules of good writing (grammar, mistakes, modern practices etc) and practice them over time, or
- get feedback from your peers, or bosses.
Using a different set of eyes to review your writing might lead to you getting feedback like: “I’m not sure I follow this” or “think about changing the order here” or “you should emphasise this bit more” or “you might need to redraft this bit”. Don’t take this critically, but understand that if your peers or bosses can’t understand it or have problems, so will your reader.
You can also imply feedback from your work with clients. The easiest way to know that something went wrong with your writing is when your client phones you up asking questions which you think you answered in the writing. This is an obvious clue that you didn’t answer it, or you answered it in line with Part 1 above (see: understand what communication is), not Part 2.
A more brutal lesson is through losing business! If a client doesn’t want to work with you, it could be because they can’t understand you – you’re not speaking ‘their language’. A client who is paying money for a service and then feels that money is wasted because they can’t understand the advice, will simply look for another service provider.
Therefore, would it not be better to get feedback, improve your writing based on that feedback, and build successful relationships through your writing?
Learn the principles of “plain English” and use them.
Plain English was developed by legal professionals to correct the problem caused by legal professionals. The legal industry is trying to fix itself. Plain English took off in the ’80s and has been growing ever since. It is now the recommended way to communicate in legal, business, general, technical and other Englishes.
Plain English is a huge area, spanning grammar, vocabulary, document design, document planning and others. If anyone has ever picked up a book by Bryan Garner, Joseph Kimble, Peter Butt, Prof. Wydick and others, you’ll see that these aren’t small books.
These books don’t glibly say “don’t use the passive” or “use strong verbs”, they’ll explain a rule giving you the background to try to persuade you. And only then, can you start to understand the benefit in the presented rule. Then you need to practice the rule, and learn it.
In my review of legal English books, I strongly recommend Richard Wydick’s “Plain English for Lawyers”. It is short, to the point, and covers all the basic information you need to improve your plain English writing skills. It also offers full feedback in terms of answers to questions it asks you to do. Bryan Garner’s excellent book “Legal Writing in Plain English” is also another excellent choice. Its 50 units long and 200+ pages. Plain English is clearly not a 90-minute lesson as part of a legal English course, or some mere hints or tips.
Plain English is supported by many articles and studies which provide scientific authority to support its rules. Saying “don’t use the passive” helps no-one at all. Understanding why, seeing how, practicing the rule, and studying the scientific authority behind the rule helps cement the rule in place. But this process takes time.
Learn these 4 rules with the online legal English course at WrittenLegalEnglish.com.
My online legal English course presents the authorities, the rules, and the background to persuade you to develop your legal English writing skills. The course takes time, involves effort, and you will need to write a lot, but it is designed to help legal professionals, people in business and indeed even laypeople to improve their writing skills. So, to start the journey to improve your writing skills and communicate effectively, please join me on my online course, or if you would like to see more about what I do, please see my free legal English exercises, youtube channel, or facebook page.