A lot of what lawyers write is for other lawyers – briefs, emails and letters all be intended for someone also in the practice of law. There are times, however, when what you write may be intended for nonlawyers. Whether composing social media posts, writing a blog post or even just creating or updating text on your firm website, below are tips to make your writing as layman friendly as possible.
1. Avoid acronyms and abbreviations.
Imagine your physician explaining test results using only acronyms for scientific names and metric units. Confusing, right? That same confusion can frustrate and alienate your reader, too. Atty, COCA, OBA, ABA, GAL and a whole host of other acronyms and abbreviations may be common knowledge to lawyers, judges and those who work with legal professionals, but they’re largely unknown to the general public. To be sure your audience understands, it’s better to literally spell it out for them.
2. Skip the jargon.
Similar to the example above, imagine your physician diagnosing you with “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia” instead of “ice cream headache.” (That’s really what that means, I promise.) Very few people speak Latin, and to add further confusion, many Latin legal terms are only loosely tied to their literal translation anyway. Try to either call things by what they are in the most common terms possible or add a short explanation (e.g., “pro se, or self-represented without a lawyer”). Also, remember words like “answer,” “action,” “complaint” and others can also have slightly different meanings outside the practice of law, so you may have to add an explanation for clarity to even non-Latin words (e.g., “answer, or response”).
3. Only capitalize proper nouns.
What’s appropriate in a brief isn’t always grammatically correct in everyday writing. Regular nouns like “attorney,” “client,” “courthouse,” “court,” “judge” or “county” should not be capitalized if they’re on their own. Capitalize them only if they are part of a proper title (e.g., “Judge Smith,” “Ottawa County Courthouse”); however, job descriptions (e.g., “longtime attorney Jane Doe”) do not get capitalized.
4. Limit your words.
You want to get to the point as soon as possible, so some things to remove include:
- Redundant words (e.g., “big, tall” or “plain, simple”)
- Introductory words (e.g., “basically” or “truly”)
- Qualifiers (e.g., “very” or “really”)
- Linking phrases (e.g., instead of “in order to” just say “to”)
- Phrases that say what you’re going to say (e.g., “next I’ll cover”)
- Prepositions (e.g., instead of saying “the manager of the store helped the woman from out of town” say “the store manager helped the out-of-town woman,” or “he is the manager of the store” say “he is the manager”)
- “That” (e.g., instead of “a truck that was on the road” say “a truck on the road,” or “the sandwich that I ate” can just be “the sandwich I ate”)
Also, in general, just ask yourself if the details are necessary. “The man who was wearing a blue shirt and drove a red truck went to the store,” could probably just be “He went to the store.” It might be easier to write your text, then go back and remove unnecessary words, phrases and sentences.
5. Proof your text.
Having another set of eyes on what you’ve written is always a good idea. Asking a grammar- and spelling-savvy nonlawyer to proof anything intended for other nonlawyers is even better. In addition to checking for proper grammar and spelling, some basic tips for proofing are:
- Typos in headlines and subheads are the hardest to spot, so be sure to double-check them;
- Read every word out loud, pointing to each as you read it, to catch any duplicates or dropped words;
- Watch out for homophones (e.g., “their” and “there,” “your” and “you’re”);
- Remember possessive and plural possessive rules for apostrophes (e.g., “From the Smiths” doesn’t need an apostrophe, but “Welcome to the Smiths’” does since “house” is implied and the house belongs to the Smiths; however, “John Smith’s house” is describing a single Smith’s home);
- Do not use quotation marks for emphasis, it often reads like sarcasm or just adds confusion;
- Give your proofer the list of suggestions from this article and ask if they see any ways to better implement them.