What does a legal writer do? That is a question that can bother people who have to get some form of legal help. And legal help practically in every case involves some form of paperwork. For its part, writing legal paperwork can at the same time be both broad and specific.
Still, due to what it involves, this is also a question that can bother those involved in both legal and writing professions. Why?
The reason may lie in the fact that legal writing encompasses both very specific legal matters and questions as well as those of a more general nature that have a connection to a legal subject or entity. That legal entity can be an official or legal institution (court, for example), lawyer’s office, or a side (person or persons) in a legal procedure.
As BunnyStudio pointed in one of its blogs (above) legal writing encompasses very specific legal themes. This includes the writing of motions, memorandums, and briefs for any specific legal case. This also includes summarising laws and case laws and legal trends. Lawyers themselves use such material in preparing cases. And then there is legal correspondence, which is in many cases oriented towards the commercial market.
“On the other hand, legal writing can be of a more general nature. That includes writing for online sites practically any legal business has. This writing includes preparing the sites themselves, keeping them current (blogs, reports, press releases). Such writing also goes beyond online. Each legal business needs to have articles present in other media as well as preparing other promotional material (booklets, pamphlets, video material).”
Who can be a legal writer?
The first assumption that someone in the general public might make is that legal writing does and should belong solely to those in the legal profession. And try often, that is exactly the case.
The reason somebody might make that assumption is the fact that the legal profession deals with a very specific terminology with which you really have to be familiar with and have the experience to really understand what is going on. Sure, but many people who do not have any legal training and experience and who have come in contact with legal materials have very often found such documents almost incomprehensible. Why?
As a legal job site Law Crossing explains, “attorneys spend so much time reading court opinions and legal documents that their writing starts reflecting the same style. They just cannot avoid using gratuitous phrases and find it extremely difficult to keep their writing simple and succinct.”
That problem becomes quite clear when a legal document reaches somebody in a general audience. Still, very often, even somebody familiar with the legal profession has a hard time reading a legal document that does not follow at least some of the basic rules of another profession – that of the writers.
So, to be a legal writer, somebody certainly has to have some sort of legal background or training. You have to be in the knowledge of not only about the terminology but also what each of the legal procedures you are writing about involves.
On the other hand, you certainly have to have good writing skills that will transfer that legal knowledge into a form that will be understandable to practically any legal layman. This is particularly the case if such a legal document is of a more general nature, like the online presence of an attorney’s office, for example.
What does the writing of legal materials and documents involve?
As Justice Education explains, even to complete something seemingly ‘simple’ such as a court form, you must learn some basics about legal writing. According to them, legal writing is the style of writing used when you’re writing a document that’s filed or presented at court.
Still, you don’t just apply this style of writing when you have to present something to a court. You need to use this style of writing in any legal matter.
Yet, even legally trained persons such as judges and lawyers have to understand what is going on in any given document. Let alone when a certain legal procedure or legal text concerns somebody who has very little or no formal legal training. It is one thing when you have a legal transcript, oriented to legal professionals, and completely another when you have an online legal article or a translation of a legal document from another country. The latter particularly has to be clear and understandable.
Another element that is a big part of legal writing is research. As Harvard Law School points out, “even non-litigation positions may require you to research a legal question, analyze the relevant legal precedents, and present an answer in a memo.” This is particularly true if you are a legal writer and have to present certain legal elements in an article or a more general document. So, great research skills are also one of the essential elements a good legal writer has to have.
The forms of legal writing
As The Balance Careers points out legal writers and editors have to deal with a really wide range of materials. Besides ’strictly legal’ materials like court documents, contracts, and similar, they have to cover practically all written materials for the legal industry.
These materials range from “legal newsletters, brochures, and marketing copy to feature articles, web content, legal blogs (“blawgs”), news reports, and attorney profiles, legal writing can take many forms.” Here is their list of more common types of legal writing:
- Feature Writers: Publish articles on legal topics in print and web-based media.
- Web Writers and Bloggers: Research, write, and edit web content for online publications, law firm websites, and law-based Internet sites.
- News Analysts: Reporters and correspondents report on the latest developments in the legal industry.
- Corporate Writers: Develop, write, edit and design a broad range of business materials for the legal industry, including press releases, brochures, leaflets, web copy, newsletters, profiles, marketing copy, business letters, presentations, reports, white papers, and academic materials.
- Legal Analysts: Summarize case law, prepare news summaries, and analyze industry events for online legal information vendors.
- Brief Writers: Perform research and draft briefs, motions, memorandums, and other legal documents for law firm clients on a contract basis.
- Legal Editors: Perform copyediting, content editing, and proofreading for a variety of legal publications.
Legal writing skills and tips for good legal writing
To be able to cover any of the above subjects, legal writers must have an excellent grasp of the stylistic and mechanical aspects of writing and the fundamentals of English grammar and usage. They must be able to express ideas in a clear, organized, concise, and logical manner and meet aggressive deadlines. Essentially, they would need to have legal experience or in-depth knowledge of the legal industry.
As mentioned above, legal writers need to have superior research skills. This includes the ability to synthesize, draft, and edit complex information. Some legal writers would need to “identify and interview expert sources as well as conceive unique story ideas or fresh approaches to evergreen topics.”
Web writers and bloggers must be familiar with HTML, SEO, meta-strategy development, keyword research, and online content management systems. Legal editors must have excellent knowledge of grammar, usage, punctuation, and style, as well as a keen attention to detail and the ability to meet tight deadlines. Knowledge of legal terminology is also essential (The Balance Careers, above).
So, what does good legal writing involve? According to the above source, a good legal writer has to have these key elements in mind:
- Always have the reading audience in mind. “A brief submitted to the court must advocate and persuade. A memorandum to a client must analyze the issues. It also has to report the state of the law, and recommend an appropriate course of action.
- Writing has to be well organized. The organization is the key to successful legal writing. A legal writer has to create a roadmap for their writing by using visual clues to guide the reader.
- Try to avoid ‘legalese.’ Legalese, specialized legal phrases, and jargon can make writing abstract, stilted, and archaic. Examples of legalese include words such as aforementioned, herewith, heretofore, and wherein.
More legal tips and an example of legal writing
- Legal writing has to be concise. Legal writing should omit extraneous words, shorten complex sentences, eliminate redundancies, and keep it simple.
- Using action words and avoid passive voice. Action words make your legal prose more powerful, dynamic, and vivid. Passive voice disguises responsibility for an act by eliminating the subject of the verb. On the other hand, an active voice tells the reader who is doing the acting and clarifies your message.
- Legal writers should edit their texts as many times as possible. Careful proofreading is particularly important in legal writing. Spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors in a legal document can undermine your credibility as a legal professional.
So what would be an example of good legal writing? According to a text in “The Washington Post,” the author thinks that the writing of Judge Srinivasan in his opinion in Jarkesy v. SECis excellent. It’s marvelously clear without being oversimplified. “It keeps the reader engaged and teaches the law along the way. And it does so without relying on the crutch of being showy or overly cute.”
“The Securities and Exchange Commission brought an administrative proceeding against George Jarkesy, Jr., charging him with securities fraud. That proceeding remains ongoing. In the meantime, Jarkesy filed this action in federal district court seeking the administrative proceeding’s termination. He argues that the proceeding’s initiation and conduct infringe his constitutional rights in several ways. The district court dismissed his action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The court concluded that Congress, by establishing a detailed statutory scheme providing for an administrative proceeding before the Commission plus the prospect of judicial review in a court of appeals, implicitly precluded concurrent district-court jurisdiction over challenges like Jarkesy’s.”
Who should deal with your legal writing needs?
Sure, big companies and legal firms have their lawyers and imply in-house legal writers. But, then, what about the rest of us? At some point, practically any individual or small business would need to present some legal document. Or, would require some form of legal writing or other.
Who do you then go to? Possibly, the best solution, in that case, would be to enlist the services of a freelance legal writer. Such a freelancer would have to have some form of legal background and/or experience and be eloquent in their writing. In most cases, such freelancers are the most cost-effective solutions.