As you approach your new courses in law school, you will find that there are a few different types of legal writing that are suitable for various occasions. It is not entirely possible to set definitive rules that apply across all subject matters and cases.
Still, there are some standards and guidelines that can be applied at a foundational level. On these standards, you can build a style of legal writing that is both professional and understandable. Below, you will find some fundamental guiding principles of legal writing that you should apply throughout your career as a law student and beyond.
What Law Students Should Keep in Mind When Writing
To start, there are fundamentals of legal writing that should be applied across all documents, regardless of whether you are in school or a practicing attorney. Fortunately, these are not difficult concepts to grasp, as they have applied to your writing experience in the past.
Truthfully, legal writing will not be drastically different than the type of written work you have done before. The challenge with this new style is that the standards and expectationsarenow somewhat unknown to you.
For this reason, you will need to rely upon your knowledge of professional writing styles, as well as your ability to shed the habitat of using informal language and haphazard formatting.To perfect the quality of your legal writing, you must first master these fundamentals:
- Format the document in consideration of the reader. It is well-known that legal writing can be quite difficult to follow for the layperson. The structure and jargon of the language can be challenging to follow for many people, so you must do what you can to ease the reader’s experience. Format the document with an easy-to-read font, carefully selected subheadings, and a crisp paragraph structure, to ensure that your reader will be comfortable as they progress through your text.
- Use only formal modes of expression. Never use any sort of abbreviations, slang, or contractions when constructing legal documents. Even as you adapt the tone and style of the language to the occasion, these elements of writing will never be acceptable.
- Adhere strictly to standard English grammar, punctuation, and syntax. This can be tricky to master, as these standards differ slightly for lawyers than writers. If you are not clear on the guidelines by which you must abide, refer to your course textbook for clarity. Additionally, you will be expected to adopt British spelling over American spelling in your writing (e.g., “labour,” instead of “labor”).
Of course, along with these critical standards, is that of the avoidance of plagiarism. You should never quote or draw information from a source without crediting the original author. Even when paraphrasing, you must cite your sources by either using in-text citations, or in the form of a footnote. (The type of citation you choose depends on the kind of assignment you are completing.)
Typically, law students will be expected to adhere to the standards of the Bluebook. It may be a bit daunting at first, but you will become accustomed to this guide rather quickly.
How to Structure Your Legal Document Effectively
As you write, keep the core purpose of your document in mind. For example, some of the reasons you will be required to write as a lawyer are:
- Briefing the colleagues in your firm, as an attorney
- Publishing a legal memorandum, in which case you would need to closely adhere to a legal memo format
- Constructing cease and desist letters for clients
- Providing preliminary information to a judge for the completion of a clerkship, as a student
No matter what the objective is behind your writing, remember that your document is meant to inform or persuade the reader in some capacity. Whether that information or persuasion is delivered in a gentle, friendly tone, or a firm, intimidating voice depends on the language you use.
In all these styles and goals, you must ensure that your document is characterized by the qualities outlined below:
- Organized: This goes hand-in-hand with the formatting factor described above. Your writing must be easy to follow and digest for the reader, no matter their background. Do not force your audience to analyze and re-read each sentence just to understand your argument. State your conclusion of the case right away, and then follow that statement clearly with distinct supporting points.
- Succinct. Do not allow your document to drag on for so long that the reader becomes lost as to what your original argument was. With brevity comes understanding! Readers are more likely to leave with a better understanding of your message if you avoid lengthy sentences filled with over-complicated language.
- Engaging.Remind yourself that you are not writing for yourself, but the reader’s comprehension. This means that you should not be talking at the audience. Instead, recount crucial events in a highly descriptive manner to allow your reader to understand your argument. Legal documents do not have to be dry and unappealing. Invite your reader to become engrossed in the details of a case while still retaining formality and authority.
As you round out your document, remind yourself of the significance of the conclusive statements. The final portion of your legal document is meant to leave your reader with a lasting impression and will likely be the part they recall with the most detail.
For some readers, an effective conclusion may convince them that they do not need to read the rest of the document (this is typical of skimmers who are looking for a quick synopsis of a legal case). To construct the most effective conclusion, follow these simple steps:
- State your conclusion.
- State the rule.
- Thoroughly explain and analyze the rule.
- Restate the conclusion.
Legal writing takes practice, just like writing in any other discipline. Though it may be tough, the more you do it, the better you will perform, and the more effective your writing will become. With each document you write, have a colleague or mentor look over itand provide you with a professional perspective as you sharpen your skills. With this guide, and trusted advice, your writing will be perfected before you know it!