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Let’s face it: The legal profession is fraught with stilted language, circular constructions, pomp and its detestable buddy circumstance. Read nearly any statute, court decision or brief and you might feel you’ve fallen into that “Twilight Zone” episode where every sentence that the central character hears or reads is a non sequitur.
But this post isn’t about writing briefs or contracts or any other type of legal writing. It’s about business writing and written communication in general. Poor writing skills can turn off potential clients and others, whether it’s in an e-mail message or a formal proposal. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best lawyer for the job because people do draw conclusions based on the quality of your writing.
So before writing that e-mail or letter to a client or that important memo to your partners, consider these five basic writing tips:
1. Learn to recognize legalese. Some lawyers can’t because they’re so accustomed to it. Or they don’t realize how jargon, especially in excess, can strangle thought; they think that’s the way people in the professional world speak and write. Or, if they do realize that legalese can be confusing, they still use it, unable to shake its grasp; it grips them like a bad addiction. Ask yourself this when you write: Could your non-lawyer spouse or brother or best friend understand the vocabulary you’re using? If not, change it.
2. Use the active voice rather than the passive voice (at least the majority of the time). This passive sentence is as lively as road kill: “The meeting was attended by four partners and three in-house attorneys.” Try this instead: “Four partners and three in-house attorneys attended the meeting.” Have people doing things, not things being done by people.
3. Avoid there-is constructions (and there-are, there-was, etc.). Usually, you can rewrite a there-was sentence and strengthen it by doing so. For example this sentence, “There was a client waiting in your office for an hour before storming off,” should be replaced with, “A client waited in your office for an hour before storming off.” (Of course, if that were really the case, you’d have more to worry about than a weak sentence.)
4. Don’t trust the word-processing thesaurus. While technology has offered most professionals, including lawyers, fast and efficient communication tools, new advancements have also impeded good writing. The simple thesaurus software that offers up synonyms seems like a good idea but it invariably makes us lazy—as in, we might not double-check the meaning of a computer-offered word alternative. Consequently, some fail to use the right word, and instead select “its second cousin,” to quote Mark Twain. As a result, precise meaning is missed.
5. Keep it simple. Generally speaking, steer clear of 25-dollar words when 25-cent words work just as well. That is, simple is often better. Repeat: Simple is often better.
These few guidelines can help cut the clutter, jettison the legalese baggage and, if not make a document “sing,” at least make it clear, concise and readable.
Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning journalist living in Portland, OR, who has written about the legal profession for more than 15 years. He’s also a college professor who teaches non-fiction writing.
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