Strong writing skills are essential to your job as a paralegal. The legal industry relies on good communication; and written communication is one of the most commonly relied upon modes. Between emails and letters to clients, opposing counsel, and court officers and various pleadings and responses, paralegals play an important role in helping ensure that the law firm clearly transmits its message.
Yet, it’s not easy to learn to write well (particularly in the legal industry where getting your exact message across is important). Since I’ve taught Legal Research and Writing for paralegals, worked in the legal field for more than a decade, and now work as a professional writer, I thought it would be prudent to provide paralegals and paralegal students with my list of top 5 legal writing tips.
Present Your Position in Active Voice
You can find a lot of great tutorials out there about how you can learn to write in active voice. I’ll give you the same advice I received in high school from my 11th grade AP English teacher, Ms. Leigh. Do what you can to rid your writing of the following “be” verbs:
It can be difficult to do. You must spend time thinking about how you can reframe the sentence to eliminate those words (and their counterparts; i.e., “having”). However, it helps your writing. Look at a few of the sentences in this paragraph. Note the number of “be” verbs (outside of the example in the parenthesis in the second sentence). Notice that most of the verbs make a stronger sentence because of the lack of “be” verbs.
Minimize the Opposition with Passive Writing
As a paralegal, you may draft responses on behalf of the firm. Of course, your supervising attorney reviews, approves, and submits the response with their signature. Very few clients truly fall under clean hands. That doesn’t mean your firm won’t successfully represent the client. It just means that sometimes you must admit to facts that are less than appealing about your client. You must also address the opposition’s claims in your response. In both instances, you want to embrace those very “be” verbs I told you to stop using. Why? Because you want to minimize less than flattering information about your client and you want to minimize the effect the opposition’s asserted claims. We don’t remember information as well when it is presented in a passive voice. Passive writing, unless the argument is really strong, is easier to gloss over.
Use Short Sentences and Paragraphs
Most paralegals (and lawyers) proudly display their ability to research and write a convincing argument. If you’ve ever looked up a case on Lexis, WestLaw, or any other legal research site, you’ve read pleadings, responses, and opinions with huge paragraphs and never-ending sentences. If you were a busy judge or law clerk working for the judge, how thrilled would you be? Long paragraphs and long sentences make it difficult on your reader. What if time constraints mean they can’t read the entire pleading or response in one sitting? Short sentences and paragraphs make it easier for your reader to find a natural place to stop.
What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness
When I taught Legal Research and Writing for paralegals, there was one concept that I wanted my students to hold onto (even if they felt they didn’t learn anything else. If you’re a student and you haven’t taken LRW I, please understand that at least the first half of it is a return visit to Grammar Island!). I wanted my students to understand the importance of fully defining or explaining what they meant because what happens in vagueness stays in vagueness. It also gives the opposing side the opportunity to define what you’re attempting to say. Write in a way that is clear.
Consider Your Audience
Do you explain a complicated concept to a 50-year-old and a six-year-old in the same way? Of course not. You wouldn’t want to patronize a 50-year-old. You wouldn’t want to talk over the head of a child. In the legal industry, you must consider who will receive and read the document, the purpose of the document, and the experience the recipient has when it comes to legal concepts. Using Latin terms that clients may not understand because it’s the right term could make you look smart. However, it doesn’t help the client. You want to explain things in a way that your reader understands it.
There You Have It
There are so many other tips that I could give you to help you improve your legal writing. The above tips are the most important (in my humble opinion). Check out your Legal Research and Writing book. Most have an entire section devoted to tips. If your book doesn’t, just look at the table of contents. Make sure that you review areas where you struggle or where you’d simply like to improve. Happy writing!