Who needs to learn grammar? Part Two -Tips for Successful Legal Writing

This blog post originally appeared on the blog in September 2009, but it is worth repeating.   It was written by Brian Craig, Online Paralegal Chair for Globe University, Minnesota School of Business and Broadview University. Since the article first appeared, Craig has written Cyberlaw: The Law of the Internet and Information Technology, Prentice Hall 2012.

This article discusses a few suggestions and tips for successful writing with a particular emphasis on legal writing.

Write in Complete Sentences and Paragraphs

As a general rule, write in complete sentences and paragraphs. Avoid excessive use of bold, italics, and bullet points. In the era of text messaging and, the art of writing is slowly disappearing. The ability to write effectively can definitely make a difference in your professional and personal life.

Use Active Verbs and Use Active Voice

Use active verbs and active voice for effective legal writing. Limit the use of the verb “to be” in legal writing.

Avoid Legalese

I advocate the use of plain English in legal writing and avoiding legalese. For example, the sentence “The customer slipped and fell on the sidewalk” reads better than “The customer slipped and fell on said sidewalk.”

Capitalization

Capitalize only words that start a sentence and words that are either proper places or names.

Spaces after a Period

Although some debate exists on whether you should use one or two spaces after a period, the most important thing is to be consistent throughout the paper or document. For years, I used two spaces but I have since become a one space writer. Use either one or two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence and be consistent throughout the paper or document. Don’t skip from one space to two spaces throughout the document. Three or more spaces after a period should definitely be avoided.

Font Size and Type

Use a consistent font throughout the paper or document. Although some debate exists on what font type is best, I usually use a generic font type such as Times New Roman, Garamond, or Arial. A 12 point font size is fine. Avoid using a font size smaller than a 10 point font. I dislike Courier.

Delete Html Formatting

For legal documents, I suggest removing any html formatting in both the body of the document when citing sources.

Headings

Headings can be helpful for the reader if used appropriately. Do not start a heading at the bottom of a page without any following text. Headings in bold, all capital letters, or underlined text can be helpful for the reader.

Avoid “Orphans” and “Widows”

A “widow” is a paragraph-ending line that falls at the beginning of the following page thus separated from the remainder of the text. An “orphan” is a paragraph-opening line that appears by itself at the bottom of a page.

Language Used in Civil Law vs. Criminal Law

In civil cases, the defendant can be found liable or not liable. In criminal law, the defendant can be found guilty or not guilty. In tort law, the plaintiff files a complaint. In criminal law, the government files a criminal complaint. Avoid using the term “charged” or “charges” with civil actions in tort.

Limit Use of Pronouns

I suggest limiting the use of pronouns. Using some pronouns is fine but sometimes pronouns are used so frequently, I cannot tell who the author means by “he” or “it” with pervasive use of pronouns. Consider using more descriptive terms such as the “retailer” or “customer” when drafting documents.

“A lot” and “Allot”

The phrase “a lot” consists of two words. “Allot” is a verb that means to distribute or to assign a portion to. The link below contains practice exercises to learn the differences between “a lot” and “allot.” Do not use “alot” in writing.

“Its” and “It’s”

If you can replace “it’s” in the sentence with “it is” or “it has” then the proper term is “it’s”; otherwise the word is “its.”

“Advice” and “Advise”

Advice is a noun that means guidance. Advise is a verb that means to recommend or to offer guidance.

“Council” and “Counsel”

When used as a noun, counsel means “advice”; when used as a verb, counsel means “to advise.” Council refers to a group that advises such as a “city council” or a board. “Counsel” can also be a legal representative of an organization such as a “corporate counsel.”

“Than” and “Then”

This is probably one of the most frequently errors I find in legal writing for today’s paralegal students. Learning the difference between “than” and “then” just takes practice.

Conclusion

In an interview with legal writing guru and Black’s Law Dictionary editor Bryan Garner, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said that “writing is very painful for me.” Scalia also mentioned that he goes through every opinion that he writes at least five times for edits. To be an effective legal writer takes time and practice but it is a valuable skill that a person can develop throughout their lifetime.

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About Margaret Neubauer

Margaret Neubauer, M.S. is the Network Dean of Paralegal for Globe University/Minnesota School of Business/Broadview University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Paralegal Studies and a Master of Science degree in Legal Studies: Law and Public Policy. She has been a paralegal, an instructor, Legal Program Coordinator and Dean of Faculty.
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