5 tips to ace legal writing skills (+ free video)

Legal writing skill is the most important tool of the trade for a lawyer or a law student.

The ability to write well allows you to communicate your message clearly and effectively. It bridges the gap between what’s on your mind and what you communicate. Therefore, it’s extremely important to master legal writing while you are a law student and continue honing it when you join the profession.

Let’s look at what all lawyers need to write and why this skill is important for them.

Types of legal writing

Regularly, disputes lawyers or in-house counsel need to draft legal pleadings for their clients or company.

Contracts are the second type of documents which require a lawyer to know how to write well. Contrary to popular belief, the best contracts are not the ones full of legal jargon but are easiest to read, comprehended, and understood by common people.

Then comes legal notices and replies to legal notices. As an in-house counsel or a law firm associate or an independent legal practitioner, you will end up drafting scores of legal notices and responses to legal notices. They are the starting point of a dispute and should be comprehensive and factually correct and have a compelling argument in favour (or in defense as the case may be) of your client. A successful legal notice or a reply is the one that is able to resolve the matter without having to resort to further litigation.

Legal writing also involves writing representations, notes on arguments, opinion, brief for opinion, summaries of cases, and research articles, especially in case of law students. Each of the above need different treatment in terms of legal writing.

The final category of legal writing or rather writing required for lawyers is emails. As working professionals, a lawyer has to write emails daily to a wide variety of audiences. While it might sound trivial, email communication is an extremely vital piece of writing that can get you clients, establish a personal brand, establish you as a professional, persuade an opposing party of your viewpoint, and much more. Never underestimate the power of writing effective emails.

legal writing

By now, I hope you are convinced that legal writing skill is a must-have for lawyers and law students. Now let me give you a few benefits of having good legal writing skills.

Benefits of good legal writing skill

– When you write well, you are generally considered as a good lawyer

– When you write mindfully, you can give attention to every small detail. It improves your focus and helps you to zero on the important little detail which might have been missed otherwise.

Writing well gives clarity of thought and helps you structure your analysis or thought process better.

– Good legal writing helps you develop a personal brand and a stellar professional image.

– Good writing brings you close to people you want to communicate with. For example, I have connected with people I have not met, through my posts on Linkedin and posts on this website. It has also helped me establish a good working relationship with people I regularly work with.

– Good legal writing improves the effectiveness of your communication. Many times, we are not able to articulate verbally what we have in mind, but if we write it all down, the picture becomes clearer and helps us formulate the right words to convey the right message.

I was recently invited by the good fellows of LawSikho.com, an online legal education portal founded by two of my college juniors, to be a guest speaker at one of their webinars on “Why Writing Skill is Critical for Lawyers”. I am sharing the video of the session for all of you who have missed out. It is a 1.5-hour long webinar where we talk about all topics related to legal writing, especially legal blogging, and writing legal articles.

I am listing down 5 tips that I shared on the webinar on how to improve your legal writing skill.

Draft as a writer, edit as an editor, review as a reader

Please do not aim for a perfect first draft. As many famous authors say –

There’s no such thing as good writing; there’s only good re-writing

Don’t let a blank word document on the screen deter you from typing your first few words.

Don’t let lack of a format stop you from starting drafting the pleadings.

Don’t let the unavailability of a template stop you from sitting down to draft a contract from scratch.

Once you have an imperfect first draft ready, give it some time and space.

Then go back to it and ruthlessly edit. Don the role of an editor while you are looking at your writing. Divorce your writer avatar and editor avatar completely to be able to effectively edit a piece of legal writing.

The third time you look at it, don the role of a reader. See if you, as a reader, understand what is being written.

If this is a court pleading, read it as a judge would.

If this is a contract, read it as the client would.

If this is an article or blog post, read it as a reader would.

When you treat your legal writing in three different ways, you will master the art of good legal writing.

Read to critique

To learn to write well, you must read. A lot.

I am not the first person to say this. There’s only one best way to learn how to write well – by writing.

The second way to learn how to write well is to read.

What I want to suggest to you as a tip to improve your legal writing skill, is to learn how to read to critique.

I had attended a two-week residential creative writing workshop in 2017, where we learnt how to do this. It is an extremely underrated yet valuable skill for all writers. And I want to give you this tip to apply to legal writing as well.

We assimilate, get inspired, and learn a lot from reading pieces of good writing.

We read a piece of Linkedin post and feel inspired and connected with the author.

We read a biography of a legal luminary and imbibe important life lessons.

We read an article and take away key aspects of the topic.

We read a research article on a legal topic and feel the urge to delve deeper into the question.

Why?

Because you loved reading that piece of writing. And you want to write like the author.

What is true for fiction, is true for all kinds of writing.

The way to pick up writing tips from reading is by reading like a critique.

Next time you read a piece of good writing, ask yourself why you like that particular piece.

What element of good writing is apparent to you?

What techniques have the author used to create that brilliant piece of writing?

If required, read it a few more times. You can hone this skill only through practice.

During the webinar, a participant asked me how to write coherent articles since she felt that whatever she wrote didn’t feel tied together. There can be many ways to bring coherence to your writing, like having a structure, subheadings, and a clear underlying question which you are trying to answer in your article. I feel what can be most helpful is, to read other’s articles and understand why they read so cohesive.

Try this as an exercise. Pick up any book, para, article, paper, Linkedin post, or even blog post which you liked.

This time, read as a critique. Ask yourself, what works for you. Also look for, what doesn’t work.

Every reader has the innate ability to pinpoint the aspect which they like and why; only we don’t think about it mindfully while reading.

Learning to read like a critique can be the most important habit to develop if you want to hone your legal writing skills.

Every word must earn its place

I heard this statement for the first time from the ex-General Counsel of ITC Limited Mr. K S Suresh, one of the most well-known in-house counsel in the country.

I was new in the legal department and had to get one of my drafts reviewed by him. It was only a letter. I prided myself as a writer and was confident that I had done a good job.

That one-page letter underwent 5 iterations. Each time, Mr. Suresh would urge me to cut out some more words to tighten up the language, by stressing on the statement –

Every word must earn its place

Believe me, this is the single most important tip I have received, that I can pass onto you, on how to write effective legal drafts.

Remember, if a word is not critical to your piece, hit the delete button.

Write it like a story

I received this tip from my first boss at ITC Limited, Mr. Shatanshu Panda.

Just a week into the organisation, he asked me to draft a Special Leave Petition. When I produced the draft after much research and editing, he told me, “Mazaa nahi aa raha hain.”

Translated, it means “The draft is not enjoyable.”

I was gobsmacked. Never have anyone given me this kind of feedback on legal writing. To be honest, I was only hoping to hear whether I had considered all Grounds or Points of Law, but he didn’t even bother to go beyond the first two paragraphs of the Synopsis.

As a guide to edit my draft, he told me, “Write it like a story.” He knew I was an author and chose to say it in the language I would grasp immediately.

For the non-authors, let me explain,

Your writing should have a flow.

Your writing should have a killer opening paragraph.

Plus your writing should be easy to read.

Everything you enjoy in a story should be present in your legal writing.

The fate of an SLP is decided in the Synopsis, rather the first three paragraphs of a Synopsis. So, convince the judge about the merits of your case within those opening paragraphs. Demonstrate to him why the impugned order is perverse instead of writing “the impugned order is perverse”.

Got the drift?

Read aloud what you have written

This a personal hack I use, to improve my writing when I feel something is lacking.

I read it aloud.

I immediately identify the gaps which need to be addressed.

Reading aloud allows you to listen to it and understand how a reader will perceive your writing.

You can immediately identify when a sentence is too long, or you have used too much passive voice, or it’s full of big words affecting the smoothness of the writing.

If it does not sound well, rest assured it will not read well.

Here is an exercise.

Pick up one of your writing and read it out loud. If required, record it.

You will be able to identify areas of improvement.

I talk a lot more on the topic in the webinar and Ramanuj also shares a lot of insight, especially on writing articles by law students, so do check out the video.

Hope you find this article on legal writing useful. Please leave a comment if you have any question or feedback. I would love to know if you did any of the exercises and benefited from it.

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