Improve your legal English writing – just do it?
It would be easy for me to tell you why you have to improve your legal English writing skills – after all, I run an online course that aims to do exactly that! The clear conflict of interest here might make me appear untrustworthy, and as a result, I would understand why you wouldn’t listen to me.
However, there are people – legal writing experts – that you should listen to.
It was these legal writing experts who allowed me to understand what the real problem of legal English writing is. Indeed, it was based on the words written by these people that I formed my course that I ran in-house, and online, in which I taught many lawyers, from trainee to partner.
And so, instead of me trying to persuade you why you should improve your legal writing skills, I will use the words of these legal writing experts. They managed to convince me, I hope they manage to convince you too.
Don’t listen to me, listen to the legal writing experts
Below, I quote from the books of legal writing experts, the experts who have:
- taught plain legal English in university, in practice, and across many different industries,
- taught plain legal English for decades to thousands of students,
- published numerous books and academic studies proving that there is a clear business case for improving your legal English writing skills,
- shown that improving your legal English writing skills improves your career and your standing amongst your peers, and
- created the legal English doctrine that has been used to improve legal and everyday communication in probably all jurisdictions around the world.
It’s not practical to buy all of the books I’ll mention below, but it is worth knowing that all of these books exist, and they all have the same general message – the need to improve your legal English writing is critical and obvious.
However, if you do want to buy a book to improve your skills, you’ll find my recommendations about the books to buy to give you feedback in my post here.
And remember, my online course is one of very few that will show you how to improve your legal English writing skills and give you the feedback you need to make sure those skills stay with you. You can find out about my course here.
Legal English Writing Experts have their say:
Wayne Schiess: Advanced Legal Writing Workshop
“What I’d wish I known about legal writing:
I wish I’d known:
- that law was a writing profession,
- that becoming a good writer would become years,
- that time pressure impedes good writing, and
- about the best sources on legal writing.”
“For three reasons, you, as a lawyer, are a professional writer:
- Lawyers are paid to write,
- Lawyers’ writing deals with complex topics and affects rights, money and liberty, and
- Lawyers’ written work is subject to serious scrutiny.”
“The first step to becoming a good legal writer is to admit you have room to improve.”
Bryan Garner: Legal Writing in Plain English
“Much of the advice in this book depends on – and even promotes – sound legal analysis. That might not be what people expect from a book on legal writing. Yet many sections are essentially about thinking straight. This is crucial, since it’s impossible to separate good writing from clear thinking.”
“Start with the premise that writing well isn’t easy. Most people don’t do it well – even many college graduates who think they do. Most doctors, accountants, and businesspeople – even professors – aren’t accomplished writers. Why should it be any different for lawyers?”
“Because legal employers prize writing ability more highly than almost any other skill, you will gain several immediate advantages:
- You’ll be more likely to get and keep whatever job you want,
- You’ll be more likely to be promoted quickly, and
- You’ll have greater opportunities for career mobility, with a broader range of possibilities.
If you can write – really write – people will assume certain other things about you. The most important is that you’re a clear thinker.”
Richard Wydick: Plain English for Lawyers
“We lawyers do not write plain English. We use eight words to say what could be said in two. We use arcane phrases to express commonplace ideas. Seeking to be precise, we become redundant. Seeking to be cautious, we become verbose. Our sentences twist on, phrase within clause within clause, glazing the eyes and numbing the mind of our readers. The result is a writing style that has, according to one critic, four outstanding characteristics. It is (1) wordy, (2) unclear, (3) pompous, and (4) dull.”
“The premise of this book is that good legal writing should not differ, without good reason, from ordinary well-written English. As a well-known New York lawyer told the young associates in his firm, ‘Good legal writing does not sound as though it had been written by a lawyer.’”
Rudolph Flesch: The ABC of Style – A Guide to Plain English
“The bad writer is like the overweight bad eater: he can’t resist the fancy desserts, the extra snacks, the second helpings, the gravy, the candy, the fudge and the nuts; in the same way the heavy-style addict lives on a steady diet of prior to, subsequently, the latter, predominantly, underprivileged, in terms of, nonexistant, overall, transpire, involved, anticipate and institutionalization. There’s no other way of changing these bad habits than by day-to-day abstention.
Just as the dieter must learn to turn down pie a la mode, so the student of good writing must learn to avoid all those handy words that add up to poor English.”
Bryan Garner: HBR Guide to Better Business Writing
“You may think you shouldn’t fuss about your writing – that good enough is good enough. But that mind-set is costly. Supervisors, colleagues, employees, clients, partners, and anyone else you communicate with will form an opinion of you from your writing. If it’s artless and sloppy, they may assume your thinking is the same. And if you fail to convince them that they should care about your message, they won’t care. They may even decide you’re not worth doing business with. The stakes are that high.”
Peter Butt, Richard Castle: Modern Legal Drafting: A Guide to Using Clearer Language
“[W]hat cannot be forgiven is the legal profession’s systematic mangling of the English language, perpetrated in the name of tradition and precision. This abuse of language cannot be justified, legally or professionally. Nor, increasingly, do clients accept it, showing a mounting dissatisfaction with vague excuses such as ‘That’s the way we always put it’ or ‘That’s how we say it in legal jargon’.”
“Layers have a vested interest in preserving their [the language of law] mystique, and part of that mystique is wrapped up in traditional legalese. But today there are clear signs that the need for traditional legal language is being questioned.”
Paul Rylance: Legal Writing and Drafting
“Although many persist in thinking otherwise, lawyers have a poor reputation as writers. We are often accused of producing unintelligible documents, contracts and letters. It need not be this way. Modern legal language need not be, as Coode put it in 1843 ‘intricate and barbarous’. People read legal writing, not because they want to, but because they have to. Lawyers need to learn to write in good, clear English that their clients understand. Those just starting out on a legal career should be given guidance in good practice from the outset so that bad habits are eliminated rather than perpetuated.”
You decide – Is it worth improving your legal English writing skills?
I’ve taken the above quotes only from the books authored by legal English writing experts. If I was to add in quotes from all of the articles legal English experts have written on this subject, the post would never end!
Needless to say, there is an overwhelming pressure to improve the level of legal English writing, especially in light of the developments in plain English. Currently, a team of legal writing experts are putting plans in place to have recognition for plain English through ISO accreditation.
Since the 1980s, studies have shown the clear benefits of improving your legal English writing. These studies have fully answered the question “why should you improve your legal English writing?” The question remains, can you afford not to improve your legal English writing?