Friday, April 17, 2015

Getting Your Legal Writing Right

I remember the time that a favourite client of mine gave me a schooling in the art of legal writing – and proofreading.

A retired lawyer (and the consummate gentleman), he had retained me to draft revisions to a fairly complex Last Will and Testament.

He was a bit of a stickler. And I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to have worked with him. Because even though my content was fine, he still had lots to say about the way my draft was set up.
Here, in a nutshell, is what I learned from him.

Precision and consistency in style, capitalization and formatting can be at least as important as content in the creation of legal documentation that meets the standards of our profession.

In other words:

  • Consistent Capitals, Please: If you are capitalizing Executor in one paragraph, you need to capitalize that word everywhere in the document. This holds true in pleadings as well. If Respondent reappears in your document, be consistent in whether you capitalize it;
  • Don’t mix and match your semicolons and periods: If you are working on a list, use semicolons throughout, except for the last paragraph of your list, which should end with a period;
  • Don’t mess with gender: “His/her” is probably never appropriate in a legal document, and certainly is not appropriate when dealing with a single person. Take the time to verify that your gender descriptions fit your document – especially when you are working from templates and precedents;
  • Paragraph numbering: To avoid errors in paragraph numbering, especially when editing, always use automatic formatting for paragraphs and lists;
  • Proofread once, twice and then proofread again. The same goes for spell checking – this should be done after every revision;
  • Use section titles:  These will make your document easier to read. Once again, consistency matters. If you are using titles, decide whether you will be underlining them, using bold font, or both, and stick to that same selection throughout your document;
  • Revisit your draft. Where possible, after you have finished your document, put it away for a few hours or a day before sending it out. Come back to it later to do a final check. You could be surprised at the number of obvious errors – in content and style – you may find when you have fresh eyes available.
Yes, it really does matter that you get it right.

As a lawyer, you are among other things, a professional writer. Your work product is your calling card, and it will go a long way, particularly when you’re starting out, toward establishing how your clients and colleagues assess you.

(As well, your supervising lawyer will probably not appreciate being called upon repeatedly to edit sloppiness, spelling mistakes, typos, formatting errors, and grammatical problems you could have found yourself in your draft).

So that’s a wrap on this week’s tip:  Take the time to get your writing right. It will make a difference.

Because it will demonstrate that you care.

(Cross-posted at SlawTips)
- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

Visit our Toronto Law Office website: www.wiselaw.net

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