The importance of clear legal writing

Posted on 7 February 2014 by Lucy Gregory

Talking to lawyers about clear writing is no easy task.

Most lawyers agree with it in principle – just not for their own profession.

‘Nuances of language are integral to the practice of law’, they argue.  ‘Clear writing means dumbing down and imprecision, and it will not do.’

Of course, that’s not the case.

You can write clearly without losing accuracy

As an ex-lawyer myself, I appreciate that legal writing is particularly difficult: the subject is specialised and complicated; the tone must be professional; the timeframe is tight; the client and firm need to be protected.

And what’s the simplest way to balance these demands?  Legalese!  Endless sentences stuffed with defined terms, legal jargon, statutory citation and extensive cross-referencing.

There’s just one problem: no one can understand it.

Some legal documents are a crime against humanity

Here’s an example.   This passage comes from a recent document offering shares in a high street brand to members of the public:

Contractual terms used herein shall be deemed to be defined as such for the purposes
of the conditions set forth in Offering Circular which constitutes a base prospectus for
the purposes of the Prospectus Directive (Directive 2003/71/EC).


Now, I know it’s a technical document and it needs to include a lot of CYA wording for various parties, but it’s written for the public.

No normal person would wade through 500 pages of that, however attractive the offer.   And I pity the little old ladies whose pensions depend on whether they read and understand some of these documents – because I guarantee they don’t.

If you’re a lawyer reading this, chuckling at the foibles of your profession, take heed!   Your clients need to understand you or you’re not doing the job properly.

Writing tips: pay attention

So here are a few tips to keep you on the straight and narrow – and to keep your clients happy:

  • Embrace short sentences.
  • Use straightforward words.
  • Use the active voice: ‘We will draft the agreement’, rather than, ‘The agreement will be drafted’.
  • Include descriptive headings; they break up the text and flag key points.
  • In emails, try to be friendly (not informal, just human).
  • Never use Latin or ‘legal padding’.
  • Ditch the jargon.
  • Avoid quoting the law.

Give it a try.   No one will think you’re less qualified to do your job because they can understand what you’re saying.   In fact, they might thank you for it.