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The aim of great legal writing should be to eliminate irrelevant information and make your use of language as efficient and clear as possible. Why do so many lawyers struggle with this concept? What can be done to improve your legal English writing skills? We asked our team of qualified and experienced language teachers to come up with some hints and tips for mastering legal writing. This is what they told us:
1) As with all writing, think about your audience – writing to another lawyer is very different to writing to a client who knows very little about law. in language parlance, this is known as 'register' and is an important aspect of all English as a Second Language exams. Avoid legalease if you can, but if you do have to use it then you should 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 and remember to proofread or have a friend or colleague check your writing. You can find more about the use of commas in legal English on this page.
3) While passive voice is frequently used in legal documents, contracts and academic reports, you should attempt to use the active voice if at all possible. This allows you to make it clear who should do what, as in: ‘The seller shall deliver the goods’, rather 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 but in general English it means something else. There are frequent examples of this 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.
6) Dates should always be written in words: In a letter emanating from the UK, it is 22 December 2015 rather than December 22 2015 or 22.12.15.
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.
8) Adopt a natural tone, but do not try and be too informal. This particularly occurs with emails whereby lawyers start an email with 'Hello' or 'Hi'.
For more help with writing in legal English, contact Legal English Courses UK. We run classes online, in London and throughout the world for motivated individual lawyers and corporations such as Cisco Systems, BDP Limited and Jones Lang LaSalle. For further information, please telephone (44)0 20 3566 0145, e-mail our main office or fill out the short form on this screen.
Do you need to know more about improving your legal English writing? One of our teachers created this video for you.