Seven legal writing mistakes to avoid

Richard Heinrich looks at the seven deadly sins of writing legal documents.

When it comes to legal writing, the stakes are high. Hard-to-read or understand documents for the court can harm cases and, sometimes, lead to sanctions.

It’s vital, therefore, that legal writing is as clear and succinct as possible.

Less is more when it comes to good legal writing, especially when it gets right down to business. Legal writers are rewarded for precision, analysis, conciseness and efficient communication.

Here are common writing mistakes you must avoid, so you don’t come across as a rookie.

1) Avoid writing in the passive

In general, you should choose the active voice over the passive. Using the passive voice – where an outside force acts on the subject of the sentence – can cause confusion.

It’s best to have the subject of your sentence do the acting and have it precede the action.

The guru of legal writing in the United States, Bryan Garner, says it best in his book, Legal Writing in Plain English:

“Think of it this way: if you’re active, you do things; if you’re passive, things are done to you. It’s the same with subjects of sentences.

In an active voice construction, the subject does something (‘The court dismissed the appeal’). In a passive-voice construction, something is done to the subject (‘The appeal was dismissed by the court’).”

This book is aimed at the US market, but it contains a host of invaluable tips for legal professionals in the United Kingdom.

2) Beware of ambiguous pronouns

An ambiguous pronoun occurs when a pronoun may refer to more than one antecedent (a prior word in the sentence), leaving readers uncertain as to your intended meaning.

This error is sometimes called an unclear antecedent.

Consider the sentence: “Laura has a letter for Diane, but couldn’t deliver it because she was blocking her way.” 

Who was blocking whose way? This sentence is confusing for the reader to understand quickly because they have to think carefully about who the pronouns refer to.

It's best to rephrase sentences containing pronouns like “her” and “him” to make it clear which pronoun refers to what.

For example: “Laura has a letter for Diane, but couldn’t deliver it because Petra was blocking Laura’s way.”

3) Watch out for unnecessary wordiness

A legal document that can convey its message in as little space as possible is more useful than one that rambles for many pages.

When you have something to say, get right to it! Inflating your sentences and paragraphs with unnecessary words or pointless filler only obfuscates what you mean to say.

So, streamline your writing by following a few rules:

  • use the active voice over the passive
  • use concrete rather than abstract language
  • cut out all of those word-wasted idioms so beloved of the legal profession (“he was aware of the fact that” instead of “he knew”, for example)

4) Check that you’re using the right homophones

Spellcheckers these days are pretty good at spotting incorrectly-spelled words and the most egregious grammatical errors.

Unfortunately, most still struggle to spot homophones (those annoying words that sound the same, but have different meanings) when they’re spelt entirely correctly but used out of context.

Here are five that are worth paying extra special attention to:

  • allude/elude  “allude” means to make an indirect reference, while “elude” means to evade or escape from
  • ensure/insure  “ensure” means to confirm that something will happen, while “insure” refers to the monetary insurance of something or someone
  • formerly/formally  “formerly” means in the past, previously, or in earlier times, while “formally” means conforming to convention, ceremony, and proper etiquette
  • their/there/they’re  “their” is the possessive case of the pronoun “they”, while “there” is an adverb that means in or at that place, and “they’re” is a contraction of the words “they” and “are”
  • its/it’s  “its” is the possessive form of “it”, while “it’s” is the contraction of “it” and “is”

5) Watch out for verbs used as nouns

Verb/noun interchange is very common in legal writing, and is referred to as “nominalisation”. For reference, it means a verb used as a noun.

For example, “act” becomes “take action” or “assume” becomes “make assumptions”. It’s almost always unnecessary, however.

Make your writing more crisp and direct by cutting these nominalisations out wherever possible. For example:

Nominalisation: “The implementation of the plan by the team was successful”

Verb: “The team implemented the plan successfully”

6) Over-using legalese

In the Elements of Legal Style, Bryan Garner writes:

“In legal writing, jargon consists mostly of stilted words and phrases  blemishes, not graces  such as aforesaid, arguendo, hereinafter…

Most hoary legal phrases have little or no substantive purpose. They sometimes mar the substance by suggesting precision where in fact an ambiguity lies.”

One of the simplest ways to cut back on legalese is to refrain from using redundant couplets (or worse, triplets!).

Why say “null and void” when just “null” would do? Why write “convey, transfer and set over” when just “convey” would do?

A tiny handful of these phrases exist in statute, and so should be retained, but the vast majority serve little or no purpose. So, cut them out.

7) Don’t neglect to proofread

Sometimes we all work on a piece of writing for so long that we begin to get sick of the sight of it.

We may even consider just submitting it as it is. It’s always a mistake to skip the proofreading stage, however.

It’s often best to have a second person proofread important documents.

If you’re not that fortunate, take a short break (at least 30 minutes) and, when you return, either print the document out and proofread it on paper with a pencil or, better still, give it a good dramatic reading (yes, out loud!).

If you stumble over a sentence when reading aloud, it’s likely that there are spelling or grammar mistakes you should take care of.

This article was previously published on the One Legal website, and is reproduced with kind permission. 

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