According to an urban legend, the lawyers’ tendency to talkativity origins in 17th-century England. In 1600, the English Parliament decided that paying lawyers for a word would be more appropriate than the previous practice of paying for the sheet, which led to the practice of writing with huge letters to maximize income. Having noticed a new chance, the lawyers began to write in a more and more elaborate style and use redundant expressions (eg "in the case of" instead of "if").
Regardless of whether this legend is based on the truth, the legal profession has long been enjoying the opinion of being wordy. As Thomas Jefferson said, lawyers say everything two or three times, so that no one else can spin the spiral and understand the meaning of words. Jonathan Swift also wrote about a community of lawyers who speak peculiar jargon that no other mortal can understand.
You will say: "Come on, are not legal terms to help lawyers communicate with each other?" I will answer you: only sometimes. Legal jargon can actually be a necessary evil, depending on what you mean by "necessary". For example, if you must use it to not get scolded by your boss - that is a pretty good reason. But is it necessary for purposes other than strengthening prejudices and silencing boss fears? The answer is: (rare) yes and (usually) no. The use of specialist legal phraseology rarely makes writing more precise, but it usually interferes with communication.
Here are 6 typical legal writing mistakes that a good lawyer avoids:
# 1 Writing in the passive voice
You should prefer the active voice, not the passive. Using the passive voice - where external force acts on the subject - can cause confusion. It is best that the subject of your sentence acts alone and appears before the actions he/she performs. Think of it this way: if you are active, you do things; if you are passive, things get along. The same is true of the subjects of sentences.
In the active voice the subject does something: The court dismissed the appeal.
In the passive voice something happens to the subject: The appeal was dismissed by the court.
# 2 Unclear Pronouns
An ambiguous pronoun may refer to more than one earlier word in a sentence. The reader is not sure about the intended meaning of the statement.
John had money for Max, but he could not pass it on because he blocked his road.
Who blocked the road? This sentence is misleading to the reader, because he must think carefully about who the pronoun refers to. It is best to reformulate sentences containing pronouns so that you can specify which pronoun refers to which noun.
John had money for Max, but he could not pass it on because David blocked his path to Max.
# 3 Unnecessary words
It is better to convey your message in the smallest space than to produce multi-page documents. When you have something to say, just say it! Puffing sentences and paragraphs with unnecessary words or senseless filler will only darken your message.
make a formal assessment => formally evaluate
at the present day => today
due to the fact that => because
be aware of the fact => know
# 4 The use of verbal nouns
Nomination, that is the use of a verb as a noun, is very widespread in legal texts. For example, "take action" instead of "acting" or "make an assumption" instead of "assume". This is almost always unnecessary. Make your writing more clear and direct, removing the nominations wherever possible.
Nomination: "Implementation of the plan by the team was a success"
Verb: "The team has successfully implemented the plan"
# 5 Abuse of legal jargon
Do not use jargon and overly sophisticated and complicated words. Avoid foreign words if there are national equivalents. Instead: "he moved away in the direction unknown to me", it is better to say "I do not know where he went".
dedicated => intended
present => this one
nupturient => betrothed
I make an inquiry => I ask
hold a meeting => meet
# 6 No final text correction
Sometimes you work on a judicial letter for so long that you cannot look at it anymore. Maybe you are even considering sending it as it is. Remember, however, that omitting the correction stage is always a mistake.
It is a good idea to ask another person to check important documents. If you do not have this option, take a short break (at least 30 minutes), and when you return to the text, print it and check it on paper or, even better, read it out loud. If you stumble on a sentence when reading aloud, there are probably spelling or grammatical errors at this place.
Not only the correct choice of words and the order and structure of sentences improve the communicativeness of the text. Pay attention to the graphic design of your writing. Use headlines and divide longer texts into chapters. You can bold key expressions. Use bullets and lists. Divide the text into paragraphs with subheadings. Sometimes it is enough to draw a simple scheme instead of describing a complicated process.
Many professions have their own jargon. Doctors, scientists, engineers, etc. often speak their own language. Using specialized terms that are understood by members of a given circle of professionals, is a way to strengthen their professional identity. However, when it comes to lawyers, using simple language has important advantages.
Here are 3 reasons why a good lawyer writes in simple language:
# 1 Simple language improves the transparency of your writing ...
Conciseness and transparency have never been more important than in today's world of new technologies, where legal documents are increasingly read on the screen, not in print. The taste of lawyers for specialized, even archaic language often harms clear and concise communication.
Which of the following expressions would you like to find in a letter addressed to you?
Make a purchase
Acquire by purchase
Acquire on the way of a buy-sell transaction
Make an acquisition by conducting a buy-sell transaction
Carry out the implementation of a buy-sell transaction
Always use the simplest forms such as "buy" in the first place. More difficult terms should only be used in exceptional and justified cases. The simple expression of thoughts almost always leads to the improvement of the substantive content of the document.
# 2 ... which benefits your client ...
Pleadings that are difficult to be read or understand may harm legal matters you work on. That is why it is important that the legal text is as clear and concise as possible. Less is more when it comes to good legal writing. In particular, the business client expects the lawyer's precision, analysis, brevity and efficient communication. Also for economic reasons.
# 3 ... and thanks to that it benefits you!
Writing concise and easy-to-understand legal texts makes a good impression about you and your legal office. This in turn increases the likelihood that the client will come back to you. Clients who understand what is happening at every stage of their case will be more likely to give you a recommendation and bring more clients to you.
Texts that are difficult to understand are one of the reasons why the general public lacks of confidence in lawyers. By renouncing the hyper-formal and "legendary" language, you build the reputation of your profession.
You may also like:
Cunningham J., What Do Clients Want from Their Lawyers, Journal of Dispute Resolution 2013/1, s. 146 et seq.
Garner B., Legal Writing in Plain English, University of Chicago Press 2013.
Jefferson T., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; Thomas Jefferson edition 2014.
Komunikacja pisemna. Rekomendacje, Kancelaria Prezesa Rady Ministrów 2015.
Sommcclad H., English Perspectives on Quality: The Client-Led Model of Quality - A Third Way?,University of British Columbia Law Review 2000/33, 503-505.
Swift J., Podróże Guliwera, Wydawnictwo Skrzat 2013.