Long ago, the drafters of legal documents in the United Kingdom were paid by the word. This led to needless verbiage to raise the word count and fee. The practice was banned in the 19th century, but the habit of creating long wordy documents too dense to understand continued.
In the 90s, an executive memo from President Bill Clinton required government agencies to write in plain English. The Michigan legal community was ahead of the trend away from legalese to plain English with its Plain Language column in the Michigan Bar Journal which began in May 1984, and continues to this day.
Using plain language helps you to be precise in your writing, whether it be a legal contract, an e-mail to clients, or a blog post. Providing clear and succinct information the reader can access quickly and understand helps. Here are a few tips for improving your writing:
The Reader—What kind of client is reading the newsletter, blog, or article? Consider their occupation, age range, level of education, or experience in the field. Give readers as much as they need to understand the situation and explain how the law looks at the problem. Think of talking to the client rather than giving a speech about the topic to your peers.
Help the Reader—Change legalese into plain English, for example:
- Delay for defer
- Must for shall
- Grant for confer
- Stop for desist
- Reduction for abatement
- Follow for comply with
Replace wordy phrases such as prior to, with regard to, or in connection with; these words have little meaning for readers and get in the way of understanding.
Style & Structure
- Create white space with bullet points, boldface, lists, or subheads.
- Keep sentences and paragraphs short.
- Edit ruthlessly cutting out unnecessary words. Using fewer words improves speed, clarity, and impact. Adding more words distracts and slows down reading speed.
- Use action verbs. Instead of saying "The bill was passed by the legislature," try "The legislature passed the bill." Or, rather than "Billy was arrested by the FBI” use, "The FBI arrested Billy."
- Review the article. Did you start with the most important part? Read the story out loud to find the trouble spots.
- Sleep on it. Stephen King advises putting the manuscript in a drawer for six weeks to age. You don’t have that amount of time, but even a few hours can make a big difference.
- Don’t rely on a spell checker to catch all errors.
- Check for correct use of ‘its’ (possessive) and ‘it’s’ (it is).
- Use contractions consistently (e.g. don’t use ‘we’ll’ in one place and ‘we will’ in another.
Finally, have fun with it. It’s not a brief for a judge, it’s a story for your clients. Enjoy the telling.
Roberta Gubbins has served as the editor of the Ingham County Legal News. Since leaving the paper, she provides services as a ghostwriter editing articles, blogs, and e-blasts for lawyers and law firms. She is the editor of The Mentor, SBM Master Lawyers Section newsletter.
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