9 ways to improve your legal writing skills
Successful paralegals possess many skills that enable them to excel. Some of the skills that attorneys value in a paralegal include attention to detail and the ability to prioritize, work under pressure, and work with minimal supervision. Perhaps the most important skill an attorney requires of their paralegal is excellent communication.
Communication skills include both verbal and written communication. Paralegals often act as the go-between for the attorney, client, court personnel, witnesses, experts, and other professionals involved in the case. A paralegal must be able to communicate clearly and effectively to avoid problems or issues due to miscommunication.
Written communication includes everything from pleadings to emails and letters. Unfortunately, many paralegals have a difficult time turning their thoughts into well-drafted documents. It could be that our use of social media, email, texts, and instant messaging has relaxed our writing skills. These informal forms of communication tend to encourage us to use a more relaxed form of writing. However, in the legal field, we must be able to transfer our thoughts to writing in a way that correctly interprets what we’re thinking. Legal writing has a specific framework that begins with a strong foundation. Grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and tone are all very important in the law office. Unlike the tone of this blog (conversational), the tone required for legal writing is much more formal.
How can I improve my writing skills?
- Take a class – For most of us, it’s been a very long time since we first learned about the proper use of grammar. Taking a class that teaches grammar, structure, and punctuation is an excellent way to strengthen your foundation and improve your writing skills. You should also have a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White in your desk at all times. Merriam Webster should be a bookmark you use often when checking spelling and definitions as well as when you need a good thesaurus.
- Read challenging material – such as Supreme Court briefs and opinions, detailed pleadings, and legal research material. The best writers are often those who are avid readers. As you read, pay attention to the tone, structure, and vocabulary. Pay attention to how various thoughts are phrased and how certain documents are structured. Legal writing takes practice but you can learn a great deal by simply reading documents that others, who have mastered legal writing, have written.
- Use outlines – Outlines help you organize your thoughts so that your document flows correctly. It also helps you see “holes” in your thought process.
- Write concisely – An attorney once told me that legalese developed because attorneys charged by the word centuries ago (the longer the document, the higher the fee). I never bothered to look this up but I did learn early that adding more words does not add authority to a document. Concise, tight writing is much more compelling and has a greater impact on the reader. Learning to write in a concise, pragmatic manner takes practice. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a great article about writing concisely.
- Never use your first draft – First drafts are just that – a draft. Learning to edit your writing is essential. A good book to read is Thinking Like a Writer by Stephen V. Armstrong and Timothy P. Terrell. It’s a lawyer’s guide to effective writing and editing. You need to do more than just read your draft – you need to edit it several times before it becomes the final product. In some cases, you may substantially re-write a document several times before it’s perfect.
- Proofread, proofread, and then proofread again – It’s very difficult to proofread your own work. I find that proofreading a day or two after I write something is the best way to catch mistakes (and I still occasionally miss something). You can sharpen your proofreading skills by taking an online course in proofreading and editing or using McGraw-Hill’s Proofreading Handbook.
- Ask someone to review your work – Having an “editor” is a great way to catch mistakes before the document leaves the law firm.
- Have a good topic sentence – This goes back to your grammar school days but having a solid topic sentence and building on that idea or thought is an excellent way to keep your writing concise. For longer documents, develop an outline.
- Use the active voice – Writing in an active voice is far more compelling. For example, instead of writing, “The electrical unit was incorrectly installed by the contractor,” you should write, “The contractor incorrectly installed the electrical unit.”
The best advice for improving your legal writing skills is to practice every day. The more you write, the more you’ll improve your legal writing skills.