Simple Rules for Clean Legal Writing

Published: Mar 22, 2023

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1. Use plain English.

Legal writing is meant to persuade the reader. While legalese seems persuasive—and lawyers are trained to use it—your argument is more likely to be understood if you use plain English. Good ways to simplify include using a thesaurus to find simpler words; removing redundant terms like “null, void, and of no effect”; skipping archaic words like “aforementioned”; avoiding double negatives like “that is not, not important”; removing unnecessary adjectives and adverbs; and keeping your sentences short.

2. Be consistent in word choice. 

This applies to pronouns, identifying terms, and tenses. Consistent pronouns will provide simpler sentence structures, though it may also serve you to use the original noun again. “The plaintiff filed her complaint” is almost as concise, but potentially clearer, than “she filed it.” Similarly, if you choose to call your client “Landlord” rather than by their name, refer to them as Landlord throughout your document (this also applies to common nouns like “agreement” or “term”). 

3. Keep it active.

Active voice is more persuasive than passive voice, and often more concise as well. Rather than describing what was done to your subject, state how your subject acted. “The judge instructed the jury to disregard the testimony” is much stronger than “The jury was instructed by the judge to disregard the testimony.” While active voice doesn’t require present tense—past tense is often appropriate—remember to keep your tenses consistent.

4. Embrace the Oxford comma.

The Oxford—or serial—comma comes after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items. This simple comma reduces ambiguity. Contracts frequently omit it, to the confusion of all. For example, the list “the defendants, Denny Crane and Alan Shore” could be interpreted as identifying two codefendants or as giving a list of three items. A comma after Crane would make it clear that this was a list of three items. For lists where an item has commas within it, use semicolons between list items to keep things clear.

5. Know your Latin abbreviations. 

The abbreviations i.e. and e.g. are not interchangeable. Id est means “that is” or “in other words,” while exempli gratia means “for example.” Using the wrong abbreviation can lead to incorrect understandings by your readers, as seen here: “cite reputable sources (i.e., court opinions)” means exclusively use cases, while “cite reputable sources (e.g., court opinions)” means other types of sources are also appropriate. Also, use a comma after the abbreviation.

6. Employ the right homophone.

Use a dictionary to confirm you’re using the right spelling of similar sounding words. Not only will that ensure you look professional, it will also avoid any confusion for your reader. Commonly confused homophones include affect/effect, ensure/insure, principle/principal, stationary/stationery, complement/compliment, and the two most critical ones to get correct, their/they’re/there and its/it’s. You also want to check your usage of common phrases like “bald-faced lie,” “free rein,” and “home in on.”

7. Stay focused.

Remember that persuasion and clarity are your goal, not entertainment. Avoid colloquialisms and sarcasm (which never reads well). Watch for phrasing that reads as arrogant or uncertain. You should also clean up ambiguities, for example replacing phrases like “recently” with specific dates.

8. Give clean references.

Overlooking simple citation details appears careless at best, and can impact your argument if your reader cannot find the source text you are referencing. Refer to the appropriate citation guide as needed, and follow basic rules for proper typeface, abbreviations, and placement of information.