Baby Step to Better Style

When people mention the dirty word “legalese”, they usually mean poor style – the biggest problem in legal writing. Before we entered law school, our writing style was like anyone else’s. When we left law school – and especially after a few years in practice – our writing style had become more “legal”, meaning worse: slow, unnatural, complicated.

“Legal” style causes our readers to suffer needlessly. Put yourself in the shoes of the reader and look at the following two sentences. Which would you rather read (line after line, page after page)?

Version 1: It is important to keep in mind the fact that, in a majority of the countries of the world, regulatory agencies can put companies that are thriving out of business.

Version 2: Please note, in most countries, regulators can put thriving companies out of business.

All of us would rather read Version 2. It’s shorter, easier and more natural. Yet the style in Version 1 is more typical in legal writing.

How do we get from Version 1 to Version 2? How do we clean up our style and make our documents lean and fit? We do it sentence by sentence, one change at a time. Think of it as baby steps. Each step seems small, but they add up and get us where we want to go.

Cut

The best way to improve our style is to make it more concise – shorter. The shorter a sentence or document, the quicker and easier it is for the reader to get through. And the best way to make it shorter is simply to cut. Every first draft contains “fat” (excess words or syllables) that we can cut without affecting the meaning.

Most lawyers I teach are advanced in English, or even native speakers. Stylistically, they’re not writing awful sentences. They’re writing “typical” sentences for lawyers of their level and experience. My job is to help them take these typical sentences and make them “superior”. The difference between typical and superior is a lot of little things – in this case, many little cuts. Again, each cut may seem small, but together they can transform our style.

Red Flags

Below are two examples of how we can cut a first draft into shape. The “red flags” are common types of cuts that you can look for in your writing.

Example 1

Let’s start with the example above.

Original: It is important to keep in mind the fact that, in a majority of the countries of the world, regulatory agencies can put companies that are thriving out of business.

Cut: It is important to keep in mind the fact that, in a majority of the countries of the worldregulatory agencies can put companies that are thriving out of business.

Revision: Please note, in most countries, regulators can put thriving companies out of business.

Red Flags:

  • Throat-clearing introductory phrases: These are easy to spot because they usually begin the sentence and end in “that”, after which comes the meat. For example – 
    - It is important to keep in mind the fact that; 
    - We must always remember that; 
    - I have looked into this matter and come to the conclusion that.
  • “Of” phrases: These phrases can often be shortened to one word. For example – 
    - a majority of = most; 
    - is indicative of = shows; 
    - a large number of = many; 
    - with the exception of = except.
  • Redundancies and implied information: For example –
    - countries of the world;
    individually tailored; 
    - large in size;
    conscious efforts; 
    mutual agreement.
  • “Who/that/which” + [a form of “to be”]: For example – 
    - companies that are thriving = thriving companies;
    - judges who have been elected = elected judges.

Each of the above cuts is quite small, but they add up to a lean sentence that is superior to the flabby original. The original is 30 words and 46 syllables. The revision is 13 words and 21 syllables – less than half the words/syllables to say the same thing!

Example 2

Let’s look at a second example.

Original: In the present case, the ruling by the lower court was prejudicial error due to the fact that it had a limiting effect on cross-examination with respect to issues that were of vital importance. (34 words/54 syllables)

Cut: In the present case, the ruling by the lower court was prejudicial error due to the fact that it had a limiting effect on cross-examination with respect to issues that were of vital importance.

Revision: Here, the lower court’s ruling was prejudicial error because it limited cross-examination on vital issues. (15 words; 31 syllables)

Red Flags:

  • Generally, look to replace phrases with one word.
  • Say “here” instead of “in the present case”, “in the instant case”, “in the case at hand”, “in the case at bar”, etc.
  • “Fact”: “Fact” is a red-flag word. For example – 
    - due to the fact that = because; 
    - the fact that = as/since; 
    - notwithstanding the fact that = although.
  • Nominalizations: For example –
    - had a limiting affect on = limited; 
    - find a solution = solve; 
    - take a course of action = act.
  • “Respect/regard/concerning”: These vague prepositions are red-flag words. Try a one-word preposition or change the word order. For example – 
    - in respect of any transfer = to transfer; 
    - regulations regarding banking = banking regulations.

Conclusion

All readers of our writing prefer a simple style because all our readers are busy. The best way to simplify is to cut – sentence by sentence, word by word, syllable by syllable. In other words, baby step to better style.

Founder, Legal Writing Coach

A member of the California Bar, Chris Jensen is a legal writing coach with broad experience in Europe, Asia, and the US.

He holds a Juris Doctorate from BYU (Utah), where he was the editor of the Law Review International Comparative Law Annual. He earned an LLM from the University of Heidelberg and an MA in Legal Linguistics from the City University of Hong Kong.

He has worked as a lawyer for major law firms in the US and Europe in various practice areas. Now based in Vienna, he has lived and worked in Europe and Asia since 1995.