Effective communication is the lynchpin of the legal profession. Writing, in particular, is a critical skill for everyone working in the law. Yet, as legal fees escalate, clients are putting increased pressure on firms to trim costs however they can. One way that many law firms are meeting these client demands is by assigning the creation of initial drafts to paralegals and other non-attorney personnel.
Consequently, it is more important than ever brush up on your legal writing. In this article, we explore the top four ways you can begin to hone your legal writing skills today. That way, when you’re called upon to prepare a draft of a letter to opposing counsel, you’ll be up to the task and ready to impress.
#1: Know your audience
Before you undertake your first assignment for the firm, be sure to take a few minutes to understand your audiences – and there will always be more than one audience. Specifically, you’ll be writing for an “Internal Audience” and an “External Audience.” Let’s discuss each in turn.
The Internal Audience consists of the attorney who assigned you the project, as well as the other members of your team who will be reading your draft. If you’ve worked at a law firm for any length of time, you know that each attorney has his or her own particularized style. Therefore, when you’re assigned a writing project by a new attorney, you’ll want to match that style as closely as possible.
One great way to start is to ask for prior examples to work from. For instance, if you’ve been asked to write a memo about a new legal development, ask for prior memos the attorney wrote on similar topics.
Once you’ve got your Internal Audience covered, give some thought to your External Audience. The External Audience could be the client, opposing counsel, a government agency, or even a judge. Obviously, the formality of your piece will alter based on who the ultimate recipient will be. Note, however, that legal writing for any audience typically requires concise and organized thoughts.
#2: Become your own best editor
It’s one thing to be able to write, but if you can also self-edit, you’ll be well on the way to becoming a valued legal writer within your firm. There are many ways to become an effective editor of legal writing. Of those, one method stands out from the rest: read your work aloud to yourself before you send it to the assigning attorney.
Let’s be clear, the trick is not to just read the piece silently in your head – actually read it out loud. The reason for this is that vocalizing your work will help you test for readability. For content that you’ve gone over so many times that it’s impossible to be objective, a good read aloud will draw attention to awkward phrasing.
If you can’t read your own sentences aloud without tripping up, there’s no way other readers will be able to follow your work. Struggling to get the sentences out? Try breaking up long sentences into more digestible chunks.
#3: Know how to write for a digital audience
These days, much of the work produced by a law firm is read on a computer or smartphone screen. While this is certainly good news from an environmental standpoint, it has undoubtedly changed the way readers experience text.
For example, if you know your project will only be read on a screen, do things like:
- Use bullet points to present lists
- Leave lots of white space on the page
- Include visual aids such as charts, graphs, or pictures
- Use a professional font that is easy to read
Digital readers can have a harder time tracking long paragraphs and endless text. Be sure to keep that in mind as you format the document for your audience.
#4: Only turn in your best work
We all know that there can be a lot of pressure to produce work product quickly within a law firm. Being fast, however, should never be a substitute for being good. Even if you have to stay late or come in early to ensure you’re turning in your best product – do it if it means work that is worth turning in.
Poor quality drafts will only have to be redone. This will cost you and your supervising attorney time that neither of you has to give. It may also have the ancillary effect of harming your reputation as a writer and an employee. Remember that the extra time you spend editing will only save you time on the back end.
Of course, there are dozens of things you can do to improve your legal writing skills. As with any other skill, the best course is to practice, practice, practice. Legal writing doesn’t come naturally to everyone. With time, though, almost every staff member can become a go-to writer for their team.