Mind Your P’s & Q’s! Brush Up On Your Legal Writing Skills
Writing is a vital part of the law degree. As a law student you will spend a lot of time scribbling notes in lectures and seminars, noting down information from books or articles, and drafting assignments.
If you then go into the legal profession, you will find yourself writing attendance notes, memos, research notes and letters and emails to colleagues and clients.
Here Emma Jones, Senior Lecturer in Law and member of the Open Justice team at The Open University, provides some do’s and don’ts to help you develop your legal writing skills.
1. Do use full sentences and paragraphs
Unless you are asked to write in note form (for example, for a list or essay plan), it is important to structure your work using full sentences and paragraphs.
In terms of sentences, bear in mind that long sentences using lots of commas and semi-colons can become difficult for your reader to follow. Try reading your sentence out-loud and see how it sounds. If you need to take a breath while you are reading it, then the chances are it’s too long!
Using one or two sentences as a paragraph can make your work seem disjointed so it’s better to aim for at least three sentences per paragraph. In fact, four to six sentences tends to be a useful general guide.
2. Don’t go over the top with jargon and flowery language
The key to legal writing is to be clear and precise. Cramming in lots of latin words and phrases, complex terminology and fillers such as “notwithstanding” and “nevertheless” can make your work difficult to read and understand. Of course in law there are times when you do need to ensure you use key terminology and phrases, but it is important not to put them in simply because you think that’s how lawyers write.
If you are answering a problem question or essay, a good tip is to imagine you are writing for an intelligent layperson with no previous idea of that topic. This will help you to ensure your explanations are clear and easy to understand.
3. Do explain the relevance of legislation and cases you use
Often in problem questions and essays you will find you need to use legislation and cases to explain the relevant law on a topic and/or as an example to illustrate or support an argument. It is important not just to give the name and then move on. You need to include at least a sentence linking the legislation or case directly to the question, to show your reader its relevance.
On the other hand, don’t fall into the trap of repeating all the facts for each case you use. Often it is the legal principle rather than the facts of the case that are important, so make sure you only tell your reader what they need to know.
4. Don’t rely on too many direct quotations from other sources
Putting in a lot of quotations can disrupt the flow of your work and make it harder for your reader to be able to follow the thread of what you are saying. It also doesn’t show your own understanding of a topic, just that you’ve read the (hopefully!) right sources. On the whole, it is better to write in your own words. If you do use an occasional quotation (for example, from a court judgment) it is important not to just leave it to “speak for itself” but to explain it to your reader.
5. Do proof read your writing carefully
If you are typing up work, running a spell check is a great idea, but it isn’t enough on its own. I have seen plenty of legal writing where terms such as “statute” have been changed to “statue”, simply because the spell check didn’t recognise the word. This means it is really important to proof read your work as well.
If possible, set aside your finished writing for a couple of days (or at least a couple of hours) before you proof read it. This will help you to step back a little and view it with “fresh eyes”. You could also ask a friend, family member or colleague to proof read it for you – you aren’t asking for help with the content, just a check on the writing.
6. Practice, practice, practice!
As with most skills, the more you practice your legal writing, the easier it will become. Make sure you build in plenty of time to draft your assignments to ensure you can really focus on the style and content of your work.
As you are reading journal articles and textbooks look at the writing style used and see if there are any hints you can pick up. It may also be that your Law School (or wider University) offer specific resources or seminars on writing. Taking these opportunities will help you to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding as clearly as possible and prepare you well for success in your degree and elsewhere.