Dec 14, 2020

A Guide to Plain Legal Writing

Plain Language WritingIn our last post, we returned to The Dangers of Bad Legal Writing. We described the problems that persist and five simple solutions to address them. In this post, we focus on how to deliver more transparency in your legal writing – and why.

A Guide to Plain Language Writing

In 2014, author Cheryl M. Stephens wrote a series for the Canadian Bar Association called Plain Language Legal Writing. It runs over 11,000 words in three parts – but it’s worth the effort. If you’re short on time, read on for a summary of the essential Why, What, and How.

Why Bother?

Our prior posts offered several examples of judges who admonished lawyers for incomprehensible writing. Clients, too, can be frustrated when they attempt to decipher legalese. Simply put, complex writing wastes everyone’s time.
Stephens’ series begins with the benefits of plain language writing, and how it addresses these issues:

  • Clear writing instills confidence – confidence your clients have in you, and the confidence to act on your advice.
  • Plain language is cost-efficient. Training of articled students moves faster, and legal assistants work more efficiently when proofreading and editing. And all of this increases the firm’s profits.
  • Plain language writing gives the firm a feature that sets it apart from its competitors and attracts new clients.

What’s So Bad About My Legal Writing?

If you have been writing the same way for years, you may think your documents read well. Stephens provides a checklist that will help you perform a critical self-assessment. Address these five problems, and you are more than halfway to better legal documents:

  • It uses roundabout rather than direct language.
  • It favors pretentious expressions over simple ones.
  • Its nouns are abstract rather than concrete.
  • It uses compound prepositions.
  • It uses the passive voice rather than the active voice.

How Do I Correct Bad Habits?

Our next post will suggest some tools that can help with the grammar and style issues in Stephens’ five-point checklist. Meanwhile, plain legal writing requires a process, especially if bad habits have been ingrained over many years, and the article offers these seven steps:

  1. Know your audience and tailor your document to their needs and level of understanding. Writing for a judge, for example, is different than writing for a client.
  2. Plan the best approach to convey your message. Instead of relying on precedent clauses, think about how to best convey the information to your target audience in a way that will make sense to them.
  3. Prepare the first draft. Write it quickly without editing. At this stage, you are simply laying the foundation for your document.
  4. Review your draft for common writing issues. (You’ll find some tools to help you do this in our next post.)
  5. Edit your document with an eye on technical issues.
  6. Have others evaluate and comment on your draft.
  7. Review your document’s purpose and revise using the input you gained from others.

So, there you have it – the why, what, and how of plain legal writing. It may take some effort to reform old habits, but the results will be worth it. And take heart; there’s help in the form of digital tools that can help speed the process. We’ll cover those in our next post. Stay tuned. Michael Sauber
Michael Sauber leads the marketing program for Korbitec, producer of Automated Civil Litigation Software (ACL). He has worked with document production technologies and professional services for over 30 years and is a frequent blogger on these topics.



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