In legal documents, plain and simple language is always best. But sometimes words can overlap or repeat in a way that confuses the reader. The answer? Summarize and define. But do it wisely.
Why do some legal documents contain words that seem meaningless, such as a specific address called “Property,” or a formal contract called “Contractor’s Agreement?”
As a new legal writer, I was surprised by this, but I copied the briefs and memos I saw to understand why lawyers were using the defined terms. My writing improved when I knew how to summarize concepts to help the reader describe the facts in my argument.
Avoid Repetitive or Long Phrases
It should read as follows: “Plaintiff’s second claim for relief asserts a claim against Defendant for insurance coverage related to a claim made against Plaintiff by a person who alleging that he was injured on the property of the Plaintiff. In her claim, the Claimant states…”
I’m tired. Aren’t you? What a dream. And how many different ways can the word “claim” be used?
You don’t want peers or judges to get tired or confused when reading your written product. You want them to be engaged, clear, and focused, so define them in one way and avoid repeating unnecessary words and phrases.
Abbreviations, Defined Add Focus
Now read this: “Coverage Claim Asks Trapezoid to Defend Blue Ridge Against Schmidt’s Complaint.”
To add clarity to a sentence or text, you must first do it. Legal writing can involve complex factual situations. Add confusing language to the mix, and you have text that is very difficult to read.
Of course there are times when you want to define a word based on its first use in order to make it easier to move forward. There are different ways of doing that. Many lawyers choose parentheses and quotation marks, or plain language, when they first define a term. For example:
- John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt as “Mr. Schmidt.”
- The accusation of Mr. Schmidt was injured on the property of Blue Ridge Red Wagon Manufacturing Corp. (“Blue Ridge”).
- A complaint was filed by Mr. Schmidt on January 2, 2022 against Blue Ridge alleging injuries and falls (the “Schmidt Complaint”).
- Plaintiff Blue Ridge notified Trapezoid Insurance Company (“Trapezoid”) of Schmidt’s Allegation the following day, January 3, 2022.
- In the current litigation, Blue Ridge asks Trapezoid to defend Blue Ridge against Schmidt’s Claim (the “Covered Claim”).
Some lawyers choose not to use quotation marks or parentheses, assuming that the reader is smart enough to think for themselves. They simply call the Trapezoid Insurance Company, for example, “Trapezoid” later in the article.
Other lawyers choose a mix. For example, it’s common to refer to a person by title and last name, so I might not describe “Mr. Schmidt” using parentheses, but I’d be fine with Schmidt’s Pronunciation. Find the way your agency or supervisor likes to shorten phrases and follow this style.
Shortcut Options can help with motivation
There are also variations here, but in my opinion, the acronyms are not very flattering. The writing choices you make should serve the purpose of the writing product and help get your message across. Abbreviations are no exception.
Let’s take the example of a customer called Blue Ridge Red Wagon Manufacturing Corp. “Blue Ridge” makes the client feel better to me than “BRRW” or “BRRWMC”. Also, talk to your colleagues about how to abbreviate names. It is possible that the customer will continue to go through “Blue Red” in the community and will be sent to that way in the documents. However, the “Defendant” has been moved at will, which may be the way to go if you’re writing a defendant’s motion to dismiss the Blue Ridge lawsuit.
Similarly, the “Schmidt Complaint” shows that the real person is alleging that he has been injured. A little personalization—as opposed to a “plaintiff’s complaint” or “January 2022 complaint”—may help a court require an insurer to help pay an injured party’s claim.
While abbreviating may work for you, never abbreviate it out of respect. The judges don’t appreciate it. Always use the title the team uses (Ms., Mx., Dr., Professor, for example) when referring to the opponent. Don’t burnish your credibility with the supervisor or the court by making negative comments. “Defendant” and “Defendant” are always accepted.
For the control team, I prefer to take the opponent’s shortcut or own shortcut. To do otherwise would be counter-intuitive, the short story would be confusing to read, and it would make no sense. The judge asks, “Are ‘Blue Ridge’ and ‘BRRW’ the same company or not?” You’d rather have the court focus on your strong arguments rather than distracting from the language.
Presenting a brief, memo, or research paper to a senior attorney with defined wording will make your document flow more smoothly. It also shows that you want to make things clear and simple for the reader—which is always appreciated.
Good luck with all your writing endeavors, and stay tuned for more tips to help you stay focused as you take on your first legal writing tasks as a new attorney.
Bloomberg Law subscribers can learn more about legal writing on us Judicial Group Skills Tool page; Our Professional Review from the legal staff above Short Faith Essay a How to Write a Research Paper; and our checklist above Task Sourcing, Managing and Responding to Client Needs, a Document Research Results.
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