Seven ways to improve your legal writing

If you are a lawyer studying legal English language skills or preparing for the TOLES exam, you will know that writing is important to get right. When is it appropriate to use legalese and when is plain English more apt? How do I draft a contract clause correctly? How do I write a letter? We try to answer these questions in this article.

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Improve your TOLES writing skills

Achieving a good TOLES score, writing a clear legal letter or drafting a watertight contract takes considerable skill in legal English, yet why do so many international lawyers struggle to get their point across?  We asked our team of Legal English and TOLES teachers to tell us their best advice for communicating well on paper and the screen.

1)  As with all writing, remember to think about your audience – writing to another lawyer is very different from writing to a client who knows little about law.  In linguistics, this is known as 'register' and is an important aspect of English as a second language exams such as IELTS.  Avoid legalese in letters if at all possible, but if you do have to use it then explain it clearly.

2)   Clarity will help you to avoid ambiguity and grey areas that might be open to misinterpretation.  A misplaced apostrophe or Oxford comma can change the meaning of an entire sentence, so try and be clear. Ask a friend or colleague to check over the document if at all possible.  You can find more about the use of commas in legal English on this page.   The graphic below is a vivid example of where punctuation can go horribly wrong.

We had no idea that Obama and Castro were married.

3)   While passive voice is frequently used in legal documents, contracts and academic reports, you should attempt to use the active voice as much as they are able to.  This allows you to make it clear who should do what. For instance  ‘The seller shall deliver the goods’ is much better than ‘the goods will be delivered’.  

4) Some words in English law have vastly different meanings to the same words in general English.  In contract law, consideration is a legal term roughly similar to value but in general English to be aware of someone or something.  There are frequent examples of this in legal English so be aware.  

5)   Try and avoid being 'wishy-washy'.  English lawyers will frequently write about all possible outcomes in law, but the client is looking for something a little more exact.  If you can come up with a definitive answer, attempt to include it in the letter. As a former US president said "I would love a lawyer with one hand because all I ever hear is 'on the one hand this, on the other hand that!"

6)   Dates should always be written in words:  In a letter being sent from the UK, it is 22 December 2017 rather than December 22 2017 or (even worse) 22.12.17.  

7)   Don’t (do not) use contractions in formal legal writing (or any other type of formal writing for that matter).  It's should never be seen in any formal document or letter.  

Legal English UK runs language courses in English for lawyers, law students and legal professionals in London and online. For further information, contact us on 44(0) 20 3566 0145 or email us.

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