Effective Legal Writing

Often legal documents are incomprehensible because of long, complicated sentences, and unnecessarily elaborate words. Readers want legal writers to state their points clearly and succinctly. Language is communication. Written language should be just as easy to understand as spoken. Writers are not communicating in a clear, direct way if they send their readers to the dictionary several times to define words or make the audience re-read a sentence because of its length and complexity. They simply appear as pedantic and pompous.

The Brooklyn Law School Library has in its collection The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing: Proven Tools and Techniques by Marie P. Buckley (Call #KF250 .B83 2011 with tips for communicating clearly and effectively in writing. The Table of Contents lists key suggestions to show that legal writing is about the reader. Chapter One, Why Writing Matter, says: “What is excellent legal writing? Strong legal writing speaks a modern language—plain English. It respects our readers’ time and intelligence by being concise but thorough. It takes complex ideas and makes them clear.” This textbook shows lawyers how to stop sounding like lawyers. Among the suggestions:
  • Avoid lengthy sentences and wordiness.
  • Be concise – sometimes less is more.
  • Avoid redundant phrases and needless qualifiers.
  • Use plain language instead of pretentious words (like plethora and myriad).
  • Use the active voice instead of the passive voice.
  • Write in a visually appealing style using headings, subheadings, lists, and graphics to help your readers find the information quickly.
A web based resource that makes the same points is PlainLanguage.gov by a group of federal employees from many different agencies who support the use of clear communication in government writing. Illustrated with Before-and-After Comparisons, this site shows that a plain-language approach improves legal writing. Law students, legal scholars and government workers write more effectively when they remember that the point of writing is to communicate ideas as clearly and as easily as possible, not to impress your readers with your intellect.