HOW TO…write like a lawyer.


Before you read any further I must explain that there are two schools of legal writer. The first is the school of “I want everyone and anyone to understand what I am writing so that there can be no doubt as to what has been agreed/disagreed and that YOU the CLIENT understand what you have paid for”. The second is the school of “I want to confuse you to make myself look smarter and you the CLIENT feel dumber so that you pay me whatever I ask because you have NO IDEA what’s going on”. If you have a lawyer in the second school of legal writer…get rid of them.

In the UK, the legal profession has snubbed long words and sentences. We’re even striving to move away from the ye olde latin phrases. These days if a judge reads a Defence or a letter that is not in plain English, the lawyer responsible for the drafting is in big trouble. The trick is to strike a balance between simple and clear language but without sacrificing gravitas (which lawyers love). There are a number of tricks that lawyers use to do this.

  1. Short, simple sentences. You can always deduct words! Challenge yourself by continuously asking, can I say this in a simpler way? Get rid of all superfluous introductions too. For example, “It is noted that” (get straight to it), “We should be grateful if you would” (just say please), “As aforementioned” (what??). Ok so SOMETIMES you can’t help but use an introduction such as “Further to your request” but at least this is helpful as it gives a context for why you are writing. If the words do not add value to what you are writing, get rid of them. Here’s an example. Compare “It is noted that you have persistently refused to pay” with “You have persistently failed to pay”. Which one is stronger and clearer?
  2. Define your terms. If you are referring to a really long word over and over again, just define it! For example, Apple Bubblegum Flavour Limited can be defined as “ABFL” like this “Our subsidiary company, Apple Bubblegum Flavour Limited (“ABFL”) is a profitable business”. From then on, instead of writing the full title of Apple Bubblegum Flavour Limited you can just write “ABFL”. Let’s look at another example. Tropical Adventures Limited can be defined like this, “Tropical Adventures Limited (“Tropical Adventures”) is a company specialising in coordinating adventurous holidays”. You can define a term in pretty much any way you want EXCEPT that you must actually USE the defined term in your writing and you MUST be CONSISTENT in your use of the defined term. For example, the defined term Tropical Adventures must be referred to as Tropical Adventures throughout the document and cannot suddenly be referred to as “TA”. In my opinion, defined terms can only be used by the very able of writers as whilst they are helpful, they can also be disruptive if you have too many or if you define them in a weird way. Define your terms in a way that helps the writing FLOW and not read like CODE.
  3. NEVER use emotive language. For your credibility’s sake avoid it! Stay away from language that you should only read in Harry Potter (surprised, annoyed, amazed etc). Also don’t make easy overstatements such as “clearly”, “obviously”, and “extremely”. Words like these lack detail and add nothing. For example compare “You received our bill on 7 October 2015” with “You clearly received our bill on 7 October 2015”. What did you notice? The use of the word “clearly” makes the writer appear weak and childish. I mean either something is clear or it is not! Don’t agree? Read this “We find your lack of response extremely rude”  and now this “We find your lack of response rude.” Which version sounds more sure of itself? The LATTER!
  4. Number your paragraphs. The best thing about numbered paragraphs is that you can cross reference! Say for example you are writing a really long complaint to a supplier. You have a strong introduction which sets out in four paragraphs the details of your grievance. You get to the end of your letter after setting out the solution you want. At this point you need to really bring it home to the reader just WHY you are justified in wanting that solution. Are you going to set out your grievance again? NO! You can simply state as follows “As set out in paragraph 3 above, your company has failed to carry out its obligations under the contract. As a result of this breach, we invite you to compensate our company in the sum of £500”. BOOM! You can even number your paragraphs in emails. Imagine this, you’ve drafted a detailed email to a potential investor/client setting out the terms upon which you are willing to negotiate. You should WANT to HELP the investor/client to consider each of your points properly. If you number the paragraphs, the potential investor/client can simply reply with “Dear Jack, I agree with paragraphs 1-7 and paragraph 9 but I’m afraid I cannot commit to paragraphs 8 and 10.” Again, BOOM! Just like that you have narrowed down the negotiation to the key issues (paragraphs 8 and 10) by one considerate email.
  5. Headings. Headings are great as they focus the reader’s attention on key issues that you want to get across and they also prepare the reader for the particular topic or sub topic. Let’s look again at my example at point 4 above (see what I did there…I cross referenced). You are writing a grievance letter to a supplier. How can you focus their attention? You can use headings as follows: Your breach, Loss caused, Solution and Next Steps. Or if you are writing a negotiation paper for a meeting you might use the following headings: Services, Duration of Services and Remuneration.
  6. Font and font size. Please do not write in Times New Roman (just too stuffy and is the automatic format of those who have not really thought about their business identity, unless of course your business identity is stuffy…) or Comic Sans (this font is for children). Pick a font like Arial, Tahoma or Calibri. These fonts are clear and encourage the reader to read what you have written. I personally prefer font size ten. Not too big and not too small. Also create a “house style” for your company. House style will be the formatting that your company uses in all of its correspondence and documentation. This helps with branding and it also protects your business as it grows. If you have a house style, all the employees are writing in the same format and structure.

So there you have it, my tips on how to write like a lawyer, but what I really should have called this post is how to write like a GOOD lawyer. Some lawyers love the serious long words and old school phrases but in my opinion such writing excludes the client, and it’s all about working collaboratively with the client!

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