12 Writing Tips for Legal English

Our trainer, Laura Stamps, shares her advice on writing for Legal English:

Here at the London School of English we teach a range of specialist courses in Legal English. I’ve just finished teaching an English for Commercial Lawyers course, which includes writing advice and practice, plus language feedback not only from an experienced English language trainer but also from a qualified lawyer from a respected law firm. 

Here are our 12 Top Tips for writing legal English, with thanks to our visiting lawyers and course participants: 

1) As with all writing, think about your audience – writing to another lawyer will be very different to writing to a client who is a layperson.

2)  If you’re aiming for clarity in your writing, then the Plain English campaign has two excellent writing guides.  The A to Z of alternative words gives you the ‘plain English’ versions of more formal words.  Of course, this could also help you to formalise your English if it’s too informal.  Again, the key is knowing what’s appropriate:

The A to Z toThe A to Z to alternative words words(PDF)

More specifically, The A to Z guide to legal phrases (PDF) gives clear definitions of many English legal words and expressions.

3) Clarity will help you to avoid ambiguity and grey areas. A funny example of ambiguity from criminal law is the newspaper headline ‘Juvenile court to try shooting defendant’.  In legal English ‘try’ means ‘put on trial’, but the meaning in general English is ‘attempt’, which would mean that the court tried to shoot the defendant who was on trial!

4) Use layout and punctuation to clarify things, for example in a contract, number each clause and give it an underlined heading.  Use sub-clauses where necessary.

5) 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.’ 

6) Be aware of words which 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’s used to make suggestions, such as ‘Shall we go to the pub?’

7) Be careful with numbers; to avoid confusion, always write them in words as well as figures.  For instance, in English, £100.00 is one hundred pounds, not ten thousand pounds; a difference of nine thousand, nine hundred pounds!

8) Similarly, dates should be written in words.  This date, 1/4/2015, is 1st April 2015 in British English but 4th January in US English.

9) Don’t (do not) use contractions in formal legal writing.

10)  Legal English still uses a lot of formal adverbs of reference such as ‘herein’ to mean ‘in this document.’  While they can cause difficulties for the lay reader, when used correctly these adverbs help the reader to navigate the text.

11)  Get a good legal dictionary.  I recommend the Oxford Dictionary of Law 

12)  Be accurate – a lawyer’s language is their tool.  Use the Spelling and Grammar tool and proofread everything!

I hope this advice is useful and whether you’re a lawyer or a layperson we’d love to hear your comments and tips on writing legal English!

By Laura Stamps

Laura Stamps has been teaching since 2001, mainly here in London but also for a year in Estonia. For the last six years she’s been working at The London School of English in West London.

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Glossary:

ambiguity(n.) – when there are two 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

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