Building a successful Law Career - Part 6
Letter writing skills
Daniel Webster said, ‘the power of clear statement is the greatest power at the bar’.
As a lawyer, your competence will often be judged from the style, tone and content of your writing. It's neither fair nor accurate in assessing ability, but it is a fact of life, that when we read a letter we tend to build up a mental picture of the person who wrote it. You want people to think of you as both professional and competent and so clear, structured, written texts, both in letters and legal documents, are what you should always aim to produce.
In this article we going to look at general writing skills in letters rather than writing skills for formal documents and contracts.
The first thing to remember is that nobody writes as well as the authors which they read. If you want your writing to be of the same standard as articles from the Times, or the Economist, then you have to read articles from these journals on a daily basis. Few of us have time to do this, so here is a set of rules to follow to make your letters direct, effective and professional.
- Organise your thoughts. If you have to write a letter which contains a number of different complex points, then quickly note down an outline of the points you have to mention. Arrange them so that the most important will be mentioned first. The next most important will be mentioned second, and so on.
- Begin drafting the outline of the letter straight away. Good writing comes from editing earlier drafts. If you want the letter to be well-written then you are going to have to re-read it and edit it. Don't worry about the opening sentence when you start, because you're probably going to change it when you edit the letter anyway.
- Remember you are writing for the reader, not for yourself. Think about how best to explain the points you want to make in the letter. Think! Especially, about the level of knowledge of the topic which the reader already has. This will influence how much you need to explain and the words you will use.
- In any opinion letter begin by thinking about what that opinion will be. The remainder of the letter should be structured so that your opinion is the logical conclusion which the reader will reach at the end of the letter. The letter will guide the reader through the facts and the law leading to the opinion. If the letter is well structured then the reader will reach exactly the same conclusion as the one you have written. In letters always be positive when you give your opinion. Try to write with authority avoiding phrases such as; I think, perhaps, it might be…, etc.
- Use signpost words, or phrases, to guide the reader showing that you are moving on to another point. e.g. – turning to, moving on to…
- Restrict each paragraph to dealing with just one topic. Every new topic – a new paragraph.
- When writing sentences, remember the Hippocratic Oath. ‘First do no harm’. Sentences that are too long, or too complex, confuse the reader and make your ideas difficult to follow. They will give the impression that you are trying to distract attention from the weakness of your argument.
- To give your writing impact keep your sentences short. The shorter the sentence, the greater the impact. Journalists try to keep their sentences to below 15 words. The sentences are easier to understand. Most sentences of 35 words, or more, can be broken down into two sentences. – When you edit, look for ways of shortening each sentence.
- Restrict each sentence to one complex idea, or two simple facts. e.g., It is Friday morning and I am now in my office.
- Don't use a sentence which introduces an idea without explaining the relevance of that idea. e.g., Don't say, ‘Section 2 of the UK Bribery Act 2011 states that...’, better to say, ‘A new offence of bribery has been created by section 2 of the UK Bribery Act…’
- Avoid phrases known as ‘throat clearers’. e.g., 'it should be noted that...', 'it is important to understand that...', 'the facts of the case are...'. These are very pompous, and they move attention away from the point you are trying to make.
- Use the active voice rather than the passive. Explaining who, or what, did something, makes it easier for the reader to follow the narrative.
- Try to use single word verbs rather than verb phrases. e.g., Don't say – ‘reach an agreement’, simply say – ‘agree’. Don't say – ‘place a restriction upon’, simply say, ‘restrict’. Don't say – ‘in compliance with’, simply say, ’comply’.
- To make the sentences easy to understand keep any modifying words or phrases close to the words they modify.
- Be precise – avoid vague words and phrases such as, "very clearly, simply put, very plainly". Support and strengthen your words and ideas by using precise language, e.g. say – "not supported by the facts of the case", instead of, "probably incorrect".
- Don't use the phrases "I think" or "it seems to me". Everything you write is what you think or how it seems to you, so these phrases add no further information to the reader.
- Get rid of all the legalese. Remove all words such as, aforementioned, heretofore, wherein. Sometimes we use these words in contracts and legal documents, but they have no place in a letter.
- Once you have completed your first draft of the letter then you must re-read it and re-write it. Edit, edit, edit! Be ruthless when you cut out words and phrases. The shorter the letter, the greater the impact. Each time you edit the draft give that draft a new number.
- When you are editing try to shorten sentences and try to find words that you can cut out. Every word in the letter should be adding to, or explaining, the message, if not, then cut it out.
Read the following sentence: In view of the fact that your client has no made no attempts to repay the money which is owed to our client, in the amount of £5,000.00, it has become imperative that we take immediate appropriate legal action to protect our client’s interests, and position, to ensure repayment of the aforesaid amount. – This is a typical piece of legalese bad writing, cloaking itself in the guise of a professional lawyer’s letter written to another law company. Wouldn't it be much easier to say – Since your client has not repaid the £5,000.00 owed to our client, we will begin court action to obtain repayment.
- Do not use contractions in business or legal letters. Use ‘do not’ ‘is not’, rather than don’t or isn’t.
- Grammar, spelling, punctuation. Once you have edited and re-written the sentences, paragraphs and ideas in your draft, then check, and re-check the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. All the impact of your letter will be lost if you make simple grammar, spelling, or punctuation mistakes. Don't rely just on using Spellchecker. Put the final draft to one side for 5 or 10 minutes and then go back, and re-read it. A fresh pair of eyes have a much better chance of seeing any small mistakes that may remain.
The professionalism you use when writing letters will convey itself to the readers. Clearly constructed, easy to follow, well-written letters will give the impression that you are a professional competent lawyer who gets straight to the point. That is the image that you want to give – Isn't it?
For further help the British Legal Centre has a number of short intensive legal writing courses relating to both letters and formal documents, such as contracts. View the list of Online Legal English courses to see if any of our courses, or free resources, would be of use in developing your professional and legal skills.
Part 1 - Some general basics
Part 2 - Growing your own professional client base – Networking Events
Part 3 - Essential skills – The Ability to speak in Public
Part 4 - Writing a successful CV
Part 5 - Giving a successful Interview – What to do and what not to do
Part 6 - Letter writing skills
Part 7 - Deciding which area of law to work in
Part 8 - Seven skills that will land you work experience at a law firm
Part 9 - How to move your career into top gear – Winning quick promotions
Part 10 - The Key to moving ahead in your career – Mastering Legal English!