Communication skills are vital and indispensable tools for lawyers.
Reading, listening to understand a client’s issues/need, writing briefs of argument, letters and various legal documents, addressing the court, and speaking with clients are all intrinsic parts of a lawyer’s daily life and work. At all times, a lawyer should be able to convey information clearly, concisely and accurately through the four basic communication skills i.e. Writing, Speaking, Reading, and Listening/Comprehension.
For some people, expressing thoughts with precision on paper may be a bit difficult, which may be the reason many are better speakers than writers, so this article will focus on improving writing skills as a lawyer. Every good and well-rounded lawyer should not just be able to speak, but also articulately express his/her thoughts in writing.
It is safe to say that more than fifty per cent of a lawyer’s work is done in writing. Generally, society views lawyers as good writers. Personally, I have had multiple experiences where I have been approached to help write different types of documents because of the belief that every lawyer writes well, irrespective of what the subject matter is. For a law student, a legal intern, a law graduate or a lawyer with years of legal practice, good writing skill is essential for writing legal opinions, briefs of argument, letters, contracts, minutes of meetings, Wills, essays, research papers etc.
Here are some practical tips to improve your writing skills.
- Know the audience/purpose of your writing
The recipients and purpose of your writing are major determinants of your writing language. What relationship exists between you and the reader? Is there a common ground of knowledge? For instance, it will be absurd to use legal jargon to write to a non-legal audience. Effective communication requires compatibility in language and a common frame of reference between the sender and the receiver (they should interact at a common level of understanding). It’s important to consider whether the readers will easily understand the words, terms or writing language that you use and if it may be necessary to simplify or write in layman terms. The purpose of communication is definitely defeated if your audience does not understand what you intend to convey.
- Expand your vocabulary
Have you ever been in a situation where you know what you’re trying to explain, but not the exact word for it? Expanding your vocabulary is like saving up words in your word bank for future use. This is not just important for writing, but for speaking as well. You can expand your vocabulary by –
- Reading, Reading, and Reading some more: Do not just read law related books, step outside your comfort zone and read works from other fields.
- Using the thesaurus often: A thesaurus is a valuable tool for enhancing writing skills. You can use a thesaurus to update your knowledge of antonyms and synonyms and eliminate unnecessary adverbs in your writing.
- Learning and using at least a new word every day
- Playing word games e.g. crossword puzzles
- Ditch the legalese and Latin words:
According to John Grisham, a bestselling author, “There are three types of words – words we know, words we should know; and words nobody knows. Forget those in the third category and use restraint with those in the second.”
There’s a difference between having a rich vocabulary and using ‘big’ words in your writing just to show off. I’m aware that as lawyers, we are expected to sound ‘lawyerly’, and some clients are somewhat impressed by our use of “Big English” like the “whereofs” and the “hereinafters”. However, it’s 2018, and the use of such words have since become obsolete. A combination of simplicity and precision is the key to good writing.
- Take the time to proof-read
Your first draft should not be your final draft. It’s important not to procrastinate on your writing tasks, so you will have enough time to go over what you’ve written. If possible, enlist the help of one or two other persons to help you proof-read. A different pair of eyes will spot mistakes that you, the writer might not easily see.
- Take a writing class
Like I always say, learning in the 21st century now transcends classrooms and you can self-educate on a range of subjects simply using your phone or other devices. There are lots of writing courses on the internet that you can take to improve your writing skills e.g. The University of Maryland Writing Center has video tutorials on writing that are quite useful.
- Practise, Practise, Practise
There’s no better way to learn than to actually do what you’re trying to learn. Write as much as you can, contribute on a blog, write articles and on topics other than law, take up more complex writing tasks at work and get feedback. With time, your writing skills will improve.
Joyce Edolor is a lawyer called to the Nigerian Bar in 2012 and she’s also a member of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators of Nigeria (ICSAN). She currently works as the Head of Legal Services, Human Resources and Administration in a group of companies.
Joyce won the star prize of the Nigerian Bar Association Young Lawyers Forum Essay competition in 2018.