by Marc A. Grinker
1. Do not use legal argot in an effort to “sound like a lawyer.” There are many words and phrases one might associate with legal writing but which have a tendency to obscure the meaning of a sentence. Although you will see that some of these words are used by judges and authors of legal texts, particularly in older texts, you should not use them yourself. The rule of thumb of modern legal writing is that a lawyer’s language, whenever possible, must be clear and concise enough to be understood by a lay client. Do not use so-called legal terminology unless general terminology would be less precise.
As stated heretofore, the landlord’s conduct created, caused, and resulted in serious bodily harm and massive injuries, to wit: a broken and mangled left leg, lacerations to the aforementioned leg, and several broken digits on the foot attached to said leg, in witness whereof was the spouse of the injured party.
Better: As stated, the landlord inflicted serious injuries on the tenant, including a broken left leg, lacerations to that leg, and several broken toes on the left foot. The altercation was witnessed by the tenant’s spouse.
2. Do not use long introductory (throat clearing) phrases that add no special meaning. Use of phrases such as “the defense contends” and “it is important to emphasize that” generally add no substantive meaning to a sentence. Making matters worse, they prevent the reader from quickly reaching the important part of the sentence and may result in a loss of emphasis. As a general rule, one should get to the important point quickly.
The plaintiff contends that the landlord caused her injury by leaving a large ditch in the backyard.
Better: The landlord injured the plaintiff by leaving a large ditch in the backyard.
Of course, if you wish to emphasize that this is only a contention, not a fact, then the first usage is acceptable. However, if you represent the plaintiff, it does your client a disservice to suggest this is only a contention. If it’s a fact, state it without introduction.
3. Do use well-understood terms of art if they are more precise than general terminology and if you are writing to a professional audience. The beginning law student will have difficulty knowing when a term of art is likely to be well understood, as they all are new to the beginner. However, as time progresses, new law students will develop an easy familiarity with terms of art and the decision whether to use them will be less difficult.
In this case, which involves a group of corporate directors who failed to properly represent the interests of the shareholders, the plaintiffs can not bring their claim in federal court because the plaintiffs and defendants were all citizens of the same state and the only issues to be tried were matters of state law.
Better: In this case, involving the breach of fiduciary duties by corporate directors, the plaintiffs can not proceed in federal court because there is neither diversity of citizenship nor any federal question.
In the preceding example, the terms “fiduciary duties,” “diversity of citizenship,” and “federal question” are terms of art likely to be understood by any practicing attorney or judge. Their use would therefore be appropriate in writing a memorandum to a supervising attorney or a brief to a judge, but might not be appropriate in a letter to a lay client.