If you’re currently studying to be a lawyer, chances are that you’ll be entering the legal world at some point in the next ten years. It seems like a while off, but it might arrive quicker than you think. Are you ready?
In this article, we’ll take you through five ways to improve your legal writing: in other words, writing for business, and not for an academic essay. Get to know the tips, try them out in your applications and assessment days – and you’ll be ready to hit the ground running when your legal career kicks off.
First up, make your point and make it clearly, quickly and well. This might, in fact, be the biggest change from academic writing to legal writing. In an essay, it might work to start with a broad outline of the background, then move to the context, and then (a good few pages later) begin to outline your views. In legal writing, however, you want to make it as easy as possible for your recipient to grasp the point.
The simplest way of doing this is to actually dedicate some time to working out what you’re trying to say. Sounds obvious, but be honest – we’ve all started writing a piece of text without really knowing what we’re trying to do with it.
If it helps, you could try explaining the concept to yourself first (see tip five, also): it often takes analysis like this to really get to the heart of your understanding. Once you’ve done this (and yes, it’s difficult work, but worth it), you’ll be ready to start crafting your text, with the main point going first and the background/context following afterwards.
Have you ever read a piece of writing where you’re not really sure what the author thinks? Maybe they argue one way, and then another, and perhaps end up somewhere in this middle. This is not what you’re going for in legal writing. Instead, think about the answer to the question you’re solving, or the point you’re making.
What’s your opinion about it? What recommendations do you have for the next steps? What should the recipient of your writing be thinking, or considering, or taking action on? Bonus points if you can add in a couple of explicit recommendations for what you think should happen next.
Commercial awareness, in its essence, is this: being aware of the commercial context. Sounds obvious, but it’s actually one of the most forgotten elements when it comes to legal writing for business. Too often, lawyers think of themselves as specialist advisers, giving guidance on the letter of the law. But the most effective legal advice is tailored to the client’s needs, goals and objectives (in other words, advice tailored to the commercial context).
So, how to integrate your legal advice and your commercial understanding? A good strategy to adopt is to spend time investigating the client’s business context. Think about what they actually want, what they’re asking for, and only then dive into the relevant law. Once you understand the legal foundation, you’ll then be in a good position to explain it with an emphasis on how it applies to that particular client, in that particular case. Make sure you’re not wasting space on material that is neither relevant nor important – get to the point and deliver the answer.
Until now, perhaps you’ve avoided bullet points, or numbered lists, or subheadings. Maybe they seemed too simplistic for your academic writing. Well, this is the time to make friends with formatting. You want your legal writing to be easy to read, easy to understand and easy to put into action, even if it deals with an incredibly complex issue.
One way of doing this is to break up the text: think about how the reader would best be able to comprehend the information, and draft accordingly. Whenever you find good examples of other people doing this, make a note, and try it out for yourself.
Here’s a quick test for you: can you explain your point, in as few sentences as possible, and still capture the essence of what you’re trying to say? It’s often when we try and explain a concept to someone else that we realise we haven’t really understood it ourselves. A fellow student might be a willing participant if you want someone to practice on – or just try explaining it to yourself! If you find that you hesitate, revisit your analysis.
Sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true – the more you understand a topic deeply, the less you’ll need to play around with jargon, long sentences and complicated descriptions. It takes a lot of effort to write with clarity, grace and style – but you’ll be recognised and rewarded for it.
Words: Eloise Skinner
Eloise Skinner is a solicitor at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP. Eloise started her journey in law at the University of Cambridge, graduating with a triple first-class degree. Following her studies, Eloise developed an interest in professional development, leading her to become a frequent contributor on careers-related topics for organisations such as The Lawyer, Lex 100 and the Law Society. Her new book, Junior Lawyers’ Handbook, can be purchased here.
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