12 Writing Tips for Legal English
Having good skills in writing for legal English is essential for lawyers. This means using correct vocabulary and grammar, knowing how to explain legal concepts in plain English, and being able to draft contract clauses correctly. Here are our top tips for writing English based on our experience teaching very successful legal English courses.
1. Write in plain English
Think about who you are writing for. Writing to another lawyer will be very different to writing to a client who is a layperson. When writing for somebody who does not have a background in law, write as clearly as possible and only use legal terms as appropriate. Here are some resources to help you:
The A to Z to alternative words from The Plain English Campaign. This gives you the ‘plain English’ version of more formal words. You can also use this in reverse; if you are writing to another lawyer, this guide can help you find more formal words to use.
The A to Z guide to legal phrases gives clear definitions of many English legal words and expressions.
2. Be clear
Avoid ambiguity and grey areas. Use the active voice to make it clear who should do what, such as ‘The seller shall deliver the goods’, rather than ‘the goods shall be delivered.’
3. Be aware of words that have more than one meaning
Some words have different meanings in general and legal English. For example, in the sentence above, ‘The seller shall deliver the goods’, ‘shall’ means ‘must’, whereas in general English it is used to make suggestions, such as ‘Shall we go to the pub?’
Another example from criminal law is the newspaper headline ‘Juvenile court to try shooting defendant’. In legal English ‘try’ means ‘put on trial’, but the meaning of ‘try’ in general English is ‘attempt’, which would mean that the court tried to shoot the defendant who was on trial.
4. And be aware of homophones
Homophones are words that sound the same as other words but do not have the same spelling, and have a different meaning. Here are some examples:
- Discrete / discreet
Discrete means individually separate and distinct, while discreet means keeping something confidential
- Formerly / formally
Formerly means in the past, previously or earlier, while formally means conforming to convention
- Ensure / insure
Ensure means to make sure that something happens, while insure means to the insurance of something or somebody
Don’t (do not) use contractions in formal legal writing.
6. Formal adverbs
Legal English still uses a lot of formal adverbs of reference such as ‘herein’, which means to mean ‘in this document.’ Other examples include ‘hereto’ and hereby. While these can cause difficulties for the lay reader, when used correctly these adverbs help the reader to navigate the text, so familiarise yourself with formal adverbs used in legal documents and do not be tempted to replace them with other words.
7. Use a legal dictionary
Get a good legal dictionary, for example the Oxford Dictionary of Law.
8. Proofread your work
You best tool as a lawyer is your language, so be accurate. Use spelling and grammar checking software and proofread everything.
9. Take a legal English course
You have come to the right place for help. Our English for Lawyers courses are specifically designed to help you with writing in a legal context and will cover everything in this blog post, and much more. Our trainers are specialist English language trainers with expertise in English for law, and they include input from lawyers. After the course, you will feel more confident when writing using legal English.
- Legal English 20-30 in London
- Legal English 20-30 Virtual Groups
- Legal English 30+
- Advanced TOLES Preparation Course
Ambiguity (n.): when there are contradictory interpretations of a text.
Appropriate (adj.): suitable.
Clarity (n.): 'clearness'.
Contraction (n.): a shortened version of two words, such as ‘won’t’ for ‘will not’.
Defendant (n.): person on trial.
Grey area (n.): something which is unclear and therefore open to different interpretations.
Layperson (n.): a non-expert, so in this case, someone who has no specialist knowledge of the law.
Lay reader (n.): someone who is reading something they have no specialist knowledge of.
Layout (n.): the way a text is physically organised on the page.
Proofread (v.): to read something thoroughly to check for and correct errors.
This blog has been written at level C1. Practise your reading and listening by reading the blogs below.
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