Next to government documents, legal writing can be some of the most complicated and obscure language for the average person to understand. Some say lawyers want it that way—that it ensures they have work—but what if that’s not true? What if the truth is that most lawyers are just not good writers? How can legal content writing be simplified to make it more easily understood?
Legal writing is a form of technical writing that focuses on the law: Defining it, defending it, applying it, and advocating, one way or another, the legal legitimacy of a case. It has its own citation system and, because it so depends on the power of authority, requires backing up all assertions with authoritative sources.
Legal writing also consistently pulls from the past. It uses the past as justification to create a similar future. Contracts prepared in the past are often used verbatim or slightly altered to fit future situations. By this means, the legal system perpetuates the past with all of its strengths, weaknesses, duplicities, and complications.
This type of writing is complicated by technical terminology, which can include legal jargon (torte, fee simple, novation), words whose meanings in law are different from common usage (execute, consideration, party), old archaic words (herein, hereto, hereby), and words from other languages (habeas corpus, prima facae, voir dire). These more complex words lend a more formal feeling to the writing, but can also confuse the reader.
Legal writing is further complicated by:
- Ultra-long sentences
- Complex language constructions
- Massive amounts of content, needed or not
Although US law schools teach legal writing classes in which they emphasize clarity, simplicity, and directness, writing that way takes time. Busy lawyers with heavy workloads don’t have that time, so they reuse existing templates from older, similar documents, which perpetuates the complicated language their classes had intended them to break through. Then, when they go to write content for blogs or websites, they transfer over the same complicated language.
A good technical writer can help legal professionals simplify their writing content for website blurbs, and for templates and other types of documents they might sell through the website.
Here are some suggestions for simplification of less formal blogs and documents (like homeowner proxy statements) and which, with the addition of more formal language and citations, could be upgraded to more formal uses (e.g. for downloadable corporate agreements):
- Minimize the use of legal jargon, foreign languages, and archaic words.
- Break up long sentences into shorter ones with simpler language.
- Carefully analyze the content to include only what is absolutely necessary for the document’s particular use.
All writing should focus on clarity, the knowledge level of the reader, and the express purpose of the document, in order to be considered well written. Because it’s so desperately needed, any writer who becomes good at this type of writing would be highly valued by the legal profession.
Susette H is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.