How is Legal Writing Different from General Writing: Differences & Tips

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Understanding how is legal writing different from general writing is crucial for practicing attorneys, law students, paralegals, and those in regulatory law alike. This article delves into the key differences in structure, tone, language, and purpose to help readers grasp the unique aspects of legal writing. We will explore the following:

  1. Understanding the Structure of Legal Writing vs General Writing
  2. The Tone of Legal Writing: Precise and Formal
  3. Language Differences: Specificity and Jargon in Legal Writing
  4. The Purpose: Objective and Persuasive Goals in Legal Writing
  5. Best Practices and Tips for Effective Legal Writing
  6. Conclusion: Bridging the Gap Between Legal Writing and General Writing

As a legal writing expert, my mission is to provide clear, impactful guidance to refine your legal writing skills. This comprehensive guide will equip you with a deeper understanding of what sets legal writing apart from general writing, and how to excel in this specialized form of communication.

Understanding the Structure of Legal Writing vs General Writing

How is legal writing different from general writing? Legal writing and general writing have fundamentally different structures tailored to their distinct purposes and audiences. Understanding these structural differences is crucial for anyone transitioning from general to legal writing.

Structured Format vs. Flexible Format

The legal writing structure prioritizes clarity and logic. Common structures include IRAC (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) or CRAC (Conclusion, Rule, Application, Conclusion) frameworks, which help legal professionals present their arguments systematically. This structured format ensures that all legal arguments are well-supported and easy to follow.

Example of Legal Writing Structure (IRAC):

  • Issue: Is a jury likely to find the defendant guilty of murder because he fired a gun at his wife, five times and killed her?
  • Rule: For a conviction of first-degree murder, the prosecution must prove the intent to kill.
  • Application: The People will argue that the evidence shows that the defendant aimed his gun at his wife, and fired it at her, point blank, indicating the intent to kill.
  • Conclusion: The jury is likely to find the defendant guilty of first-degree murder because he aimed the gun at his wife, and fired it multiple times, which showed his intent to kill her.

In contrast, general writing follows more flexible and varied structures that depend on the type of writing (e.g., articles, essays, fiction). The freedom in structure allows for creative expression and varied styles. While performing legal writing, a drafter may need to summarize an article or deposition, not employing the basic structure of IRAC/CRAC, but instead, conveying information in an organized fashion. With general writing, the drafter still attempts to write in a hyper-organized fashion, with paragraphs containing a meaningful topic sentence, supported by the body of the paragraph and followed by a brief conclusion.

There are different ways to organize a paragraph in non-legal writing. One structure is: Introduction/Point/Topic Sentence, Analysis, and Conclusion.  The Introduction or introductory sentence should contain a mix of facts and the critical concept analyzed.  The objective is to make one’s writing clear and easy to follow using a strong topic sentence no matter what the format.  Next is the Analysis, a discussion of the evidence as it relates to the Point.  And finally, there is a brief Conclusion. 

Example of General Writing Structure:

In America’s Mass-Shooting Epidemic is Contagious (The Atlantic, February 26, 2018), Derek Thompson opines that unrooted and lonely men “suffering from both grandiose aspirations and petty grievances” are most often the perpetrators of the mass shooting epidemic, which spreads like a virus to yet other loners.  One never hears that the shooter was “warm, welcoming, and the most popular kid in school.”  Although the mass shootings are not necessarily terrorist acts, the commonality between these shootings and terrorism is that there is a dark “ideology of self-aggrandizement and a bid for greatness, requiring the destruction of others.”  It may be that the “white-male mass-shooting” phenomenon is driven by “a media-inspired religion of grievance and greatness.”  The author notes this is a “mass-distributed sickness resulting from which male outcasts are vulnerable to infection.”  

Evidence and Citation

For effective legal writing, citations are essential and follow strict formats like The Bluebook or in California state courts, the California Style Manual. Drafters should support every claim by authority, such as statutes and case law. This meticulous citation fosters credibility and accountability.

Example: In the former case on the precedent for abortion, Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973),  the Supreme Court of the United States concluded that the right to privacy is fundamental.

While it can include citations, one of the general writing characteristics is to be often less reliant on them, unless the work is academic or research-based.

Example: Studies have shown that setting goals leads to higher achievement (Locke & Latham, 2002).

Paragraph and Sentence Structure

But how is legal writing different from general writing? The legal writing emphasizes concise, precise sentences and paragraphs. Writers should avoid long, complex sentences to prevent misinterpretation. Each paragraph typically addresses one point, using clear topic sentences to guide the reader.

In comparison, general writing allows for more varied sentence structures and lengths, encouraging creativity and personal style. Paragraphs can be more fluid, and drafters often employ narrative techniques to engage readers.

The structured nature of legal writing may seem restrictive, but it serves a vital purpose: ensuring the reader can quickly understand and follow complex legal arguments. Mastering this structure is a key step in becoming an effective legal writer.

Lawyers checking the differences between legal writing and general writing.

The Tone of Legal Writing: Precise and Formal

The legal writing tone is distinctively precise and formal, which sets it apart from general writing. This tone serves to convey information clearly and persuasively while maintaining a level of professionalism required in legal contexts.

Precision in Language

Legal writing demands exactness. The drafter should select carefully every word and phrase to convey specific meanings that leave no room for ambiguity. This precision is necessary to ensure that the reader (e.g., a judge) interprets the legal arguments and documents as intended by the drafter.

Example of Precise Language:

“The plaintiff contends that the defendant’s breach of contract caused financial losses amounting to $10,000.00, based upon the plaintiff’s inability to fill its orders with existing customers, as evidenced by the customer loss statements attached here.”

Formality and Tone

Legal writing typically adopts a formal tone. This formality is crucial for maintaining the seriousness and gravity of legal communication. After all, legal writing is a form of formal writing. The tone avoids casual or colloquial language, stating the content instead in a professional and respectful manner.

Example of Formal Tone:

“Plaintiff respectfully submits that the customer loss statements presented, showing $10,000 in actual losses, supports the conclusion that the defendant is liable for the $10,000 in damages as claimed.”

General writing, depending on the context, can vary significantly in tone. It can be informal and conversational, particularly in blogs, personal essays, or creative writing, where establishing a connection with the reader is essential.

Example of Informal Tone:

“I believe the evidence clearly shows that the company should be held responsible for the damages. What do you think?”

Formality in Addressing and Referencing

In legal writing, references to parties, statutes, and precedents are meticulously formal. Titles, roles, and legal terms are capitalized and appropriately cited to uphold the gravity and accuracy of the document.

Infographic of examples of how to apply a legal writing tone in legal documents.

Language Differences: Specificity and Jargon in Legal Writing

The language used in legal writing is distinctive for its specificity and frequent use of legal jargon (e.g., a tort is a civil wrong). This sets legal writing apart from general writing, which often employs a broader, more accessible vocabulary. Understanding these language differences is crucial for anyone aiming to master legal writing.

Specificity in Legal Writing

Legal writing demands an exceptional level of specificity. Every term and phrase used must be precise to avoid ambiguity or misinterpretation. This specificity ensures that the reader fully understands the legal arguments and evidence presented.

Example of Specific Language in Legal Writing:

“The defendant’s actions, in reducing benefits under the company’s pension plan, constitute a breach of fiduciary duty under Section 404(a) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), which requires fiduciaries to act solely in the interest of plan participants and beneficiaries.”

General writing, in contrast, often aims for readability and accessibility, allowing for more general terms and less precise language.

Example of General Language:

“The company’s actions were unfair to its employees, violating the basic principles of trust and responsibility.”

Use of Legal Jargon

Legal writing frequently incorporates jargon—specialized language that is specific to the field of law. These terms often have precise legal meanings that may differ from their common usage. Jargon is essential for articulating complex legal concepts succinctly and accurately.

Example of Legal Jargon:

  • Tort: A civil wrong that causes a claimant to suffer loss or harm.
  • Mens Rea: The mental state of intent to commit a crime–“guilty mind.”
  • Stare Decisis: The legal principle of applying precedent to the specific issue at hand, e.g., privacy in the abortion decision.

General writing, on the other hand, avoids jargon to maintain clarity and ensure the legal content is accessible to a broader audience.

Example Without Jargon:

  • Tort: A wrongful act that leads to damage or injury to another.
  • Mens Rea: The intention or knowledge of wrongdoing.
  • Stare Decisis: Following previous judicial decisions in similar cases.

Why Specificity and Jargon are Important in Legal Writing

The use of specific language and legal jargon is critical in legal writing for several reasons:

  • Clarity: Specific terms reduce the risk of misunderstandings or misinterpretations.
  • Precision: Accurate language helps in clearly defining legal arguments, obligations, and consequences.
  • Authority: Legal jargon adds an element of professionalism and authority to the writing, reinforcing the credibility of the argument.

Balancing Specificity with Clarity

While specificity and jargon are necessary, legal writers must also ensure their writing is clear. Overuse of jargon or overly complex language can make the writing difficult to understand. Striking a balance between precision and readability is essential.

Example of Balanced Language:

“The plaintiff asserts that the defendant’s failure to disclose material information, including all the identities of the buyers, constitutes a breach of fiduciary duty under the relevant statutes.”

Avoiding Unnecessary Complexity

One of the criticisms of legal writing is that it can become overly complex. Writers should aim to simplify their language where possible without losing the necessary specificity. Avoiding unnecessary legalese—overly formal and technical language—is a best practice.

Example of Simplified Legal Writing:

Instead of writing “The party of the first part,” opt for “The buyer.”

Understanding the language differences between legal writing and general writing is crucial for legal professionals. By mastering specificity and balancing the use of jargon, writers can ensure their legal documents are both precise and comprehensible.

Lawyer reviewing legal document and the legal writing structure.

The Purpose: Objective and Persuasive Goals in Legal Writing

Legal writing may be objective and persuasive. This distinguishes it from general writing, which may focus more on entertainment, information, or personal expression. Understanding these goals can help writers craft more effective legal documents.

Objective Goals in Legal Writing

Objective legal writing aims to provide a clear, unbiased presentation of the facts and applicable law. This type of writing is crucial in legal memoranda or judicial opinions.  Here, the drafter sets forth the good, the bad, and the warts in the parties’ arguments.

Goals of Persuasion

In writing for court–for example, in motions or trial and appellate briefs, each party attempts to draft arguments in order to win – persuasive legal writing. Persuasive legal writing seeks to convince the reader to adopt a particular stance or take specific action. This type of writing is common in advocacy, such as in court briefs, motions, and closing arguments where the writer must advocate for a client’s position. Persuasive writing in legal contexts relies on strong arguments, compelling evidence, and rhetorical skills to influence the decision-maker, whether that be a judge, jury, or opposing counsel.

Example of Persuasive Legal Writing:

“Although our client, the defendant, will contend that it was the plaintiff who entered the intersection last (and was thus at fault), a factfinder is likely to find based upon the skid marks and speed estimates–that it was the defendant, who was at fault, having entered the intersection last.”

General writing also includes persuasive elements, particularly in opinion pieces, advertisements, and persuasive essays. However, the techniques and expectations differ, focusing more on emotional appeal and personal conviction rather than legal reasoning and precedents.

Balancing Objectivity and Persuasion

Legal writers often need to balance objectivity and persuasion, especially when drafting documents such as appellate briefs. The document must present the law objectively while simultaneously arguing why the decision should favor the client.

Effective legal writing employs a logical structure and authoritative tone to maintain credibility. Even when persuading, the writer should avoid hyperbole and unsupported claims, using factual and logical arguments supported by evidence and legal precedents.

This balance helps strengthen the argument, making it more credible and compelling.

Lawyer reviewing the differences between the legal writing vs general writing.

Best Practices and Tips for Effective Legal Writing

Legal writing demands a high level of precision, clarity, and professionalism. By following best practices and incorporating effective techniques, legal writers can ensure their documents are both compelling and cogent. Here are some essential tips for mastering legal writing:

1. Understand the Audience

The first step in effective legal writing is understanding your audience. Whether writing for judges, clients, or opposing counsel, tailoring your language, tone, and structure to fit the audience’s expectations and knowledge level is crucial.

Example: When writing a legal memorandum for senior attorneys, use technical legal language and cite relevant case law thoroughly. For a client letter, simplify complex legal terms and explain their implications clearly.

2. Start with a Strong Organizational Framework

A well-organized document is easier to read and understand. Use recognized frameworks such as IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion) or CRAC (Conclusion, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion) to structure your argument logically and coherently.

Example: Begin each section with a heading and use subheadings to break up complex discussions. Start with a brief introduction of the issue, detail the applicable law, and methodically analyze how the law applies to the facts.

3. Be Clear and Concise

Legal writing should be clear and to the point. Avoid unnecessary words, jargon, and complex sentences that can obscure your message.

Example: Instead of “The aforementioned statute indicates that in situations where . . . ,” write “The statute indicates that when . . .”

4. Use Active Voice 

Writing in active voice, where the subject of the sentence performs the action, makes your writing more direct and engaging.

Example: “The court dismissed the case” (active) is clearer than “The case was dismissed by the court” (passive).

5. Be Precise and Accurate

Precision and accuracy are fundamental in legal writing. Ensure that all facts, citations, and interpretations of the law are correct. Double-check sources and use direct quotes sparingly and strategically.

Example: When citing cases, statutes, or regulations, follow the required citation style meticulously, such as The Bluebook in federal court and the California Style Manual in California state courts.

6. Tailor Your Language to the Legal Context

Legal writing often involves complex legal jargon, but it is important to use it appropriately. Ensure that specialized terms are necessary and understood by your audience.

Example: Use terms like “res judicata” or “mens rea” only if you are discussing these terms as legal concepts. Otherwise, opt for simpler explanations.

7. Edit and Proofread Rigorously

Editing is crucial to effective legal writing. A well-edited document not only corrects errors but also improves clarity, coherence, and overall quality. Proofreading helps eliminate common grammatical errors, typos, and inconsistencies.

Example: After finishing your draft, take a break and return with fresh eyes. Consider using tools like Grammarly to assist in catching common errors.

8. Use Headings and Subheadings Strategically

Headings and subheadings not only help organize your document but also guide the reader through your argument step by step. They make the document easier to scan and comprehend.

Example: Use descriptive headings, in a burglary case, like “The Defendant Committed a Burglary by Breaking His Neighbor’s Garage Window and Stealing Beer.”  You can then use a subheading, for breaking and entering – the first element of burglary-like “By Breaking and Then Entering His Neighbor’s Garage Window, the Defendant Committed a Breaking and Entering.”

9. Seek Feedback and Revise Accordingly

Sharing your draft with colleagues or mentors can provide valuable insights and suggestions for improvement. Constructive criticism can highlight areas that need clarity or stronger arguments.

Example: Before finalizing a brief, have a peer review it for technical accuracy and persuasive strength. Revise the draft based on the feedback received.

Incorporating these best practices and tips can enhance the quality of your legal writing. By focusing on clarity, precision, and effective persuasion, you can produce documents that not only meet professional standards but also achieve the desired outcomes.

Female lawyers reviewing legal writing techniques.

Conclusion: Bridging the Gap Between Legal Writing and General Writing

Understanding how is legal writing different from general writing is crucial for anyone involved in the legal profession or aspiring to enter it. Each form of writing has its unique characteristics in structure, tone, language, and purpose, which serve specific functions essential to their target audiences.

Legal writing emphasizes a structured, logical framework to present clear and unambiguous arguments. The tone is precise and formal, focusing on professional, succinct language often filled with specialized legal jargon. The purpose of legal writing can encompass both objective presentation and persuasive argument, ensuring that every document is rigorous in its factual and logical integrity.

On the other hand, general writing offers more flexibility in structure and tone, catering to a diverse audience and ranging from information dissemination to creative expression. While clarity and coherence are important in both types of writing, general writing favors accessibility over specificity.

Bridging the Gap

To bridge the gap between legal writing and general writing, writers can focus on a few key strategies:

1. Enhance Clarity and Precision

Regardless of the writing context, clarity and precision are paramount. Legal writers can adopt techniques used in general writing, such as avoiding unnecessary jargon and using plain language, to make their legal documents more accessible without sacrificing accuracy. Meanwhile, general writers can learn from the precision of legal writing to make their arguments more robust and clear.

2. Adapt the Audience-Centric Approach

Legal writers can benefit from the varied tones in general writing by adjusting their tone to better suit their audience. For example, client communications may be more effective when written in clear, plain legal language. Conversely, general writers can learn to address specific audiences more effectively by incorporating the meticulous audience awareness seen in legal writing.

3. Balance Objectivity and Persuasion

Both forms of writing can find a middle ground in balancing objectivity and persuasion. Legal writers often need to present facts objectively while still advocating for a client’s position. General writers, especially those in journalistic or opinion-based fields, can incorporate more structured argumentation to strengthen their persuasive language.

4. Focus on Strong Organization

Adopting the structured frameworks of legal writing can enhance the organization of general writing. By applying methods such as IRAC or CRAC, writers can present their ideas more coherently, helping readers follow their arguments clearly and logically.

5. Emphasize Rigorous Editing

Both forms of writing benefit immensely from meticulous editing. Legal writers should continue to uphold rigorous editing standards to maintain precision, while general writers can adopt these rigorous standards to produce polished, error-free work.

By learning from one another, legal students and general writers can enhance their legal writing skills, making their work more effective and impactful. Writers can bring the meticulous and logical clarity of their legal profession into more accessible realms, while general writers can adopt the precision and structured argumentation techniques essential in legal contexts.

Ultimately, understanding and integrating the strengths of each writing style can lead to more well-rounded and effective communication, regardless of the audience or purpose. Writers who master both legal and general writing techniques are well-positioned to excel in diverse contexts, ensuring their messages are clear, compelling, and impactful.  For a “deeper dive” into legal writing tips, consider taking our Course, Legal Writing Launch.

Female lawyer reviews legal writing structure of the legal document.

More to explore

Consequences of Bad Legal Writing: Avoid Costly Errors in Legal Practice

Legal writing is an essential skill for any practicing attorney, yet its importance is often underestimated. Bad legal writing can have detrimental consequences, including misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and even legal ramifications. This article delves into the severe impacts of poor legal writing and provides insights on how to avoid costly mistakes, thereby protecting your legal practice.
In this article, we will cover the following crucial aspects:
The Importance of Precise Legal Writing
Common Legal Writing Errors and Their Impact
How Poor Legal Documentation Leads to Misinterpretations
Legal Miscommunication and Its Consequences
Protecting Your Practice: Avoiding Legal Writing Mistakes
Conclusion: Enhancing Clarity to Safeguard Your Reputation
The practice of law demands precision and clarity. Every legal document you draft must reflect this requirement to ensure accurate representation and to maintain the integrity of your legal practice. By understanding the far-reaching consequences of bad legal writing, you can take proactive steps to perfect your writing skills and avoid the pitfalls associated with ambiguous or inaccurate documentation.
Join me as we explore these key areas and learn how to elevate your legal writing to avoid the potentially damaging effects of poor legal documentation.

Featured oimage of Mastering Legal Writing in Plain English showcasing a legal document.

Legal Writing in Plain English: Optimizing Clarity in Legal Documents

Legal writing often suffers from complexity, dense jargon, and convoluted sentence structures that can bewilder anyone not well-versed in legalese. Writing legal documents in plain English is not just beneficial; it is essential for ensuring that non-lawyers, clients, and even fellow lawyers can understand legal texts with ease. This article explores tips and resources for mastering legal writing in plain English, providing clear guidance to make your legal documents more accessible and comprehensible.
This article covers:
Why Plain English Matters in Legal Writing
Essential Principles for Writing Legal Documents in Plain English
Top Tips for Simplifying Legal Language
Resources and Courses for Improving Legal Writing Skills
Common Pitfalls to Avoid in Legal Writing

Conclusion: The Importance of Clear and Accessible Legal Documents

For years, legal writing has been synonymous with complex language and intricate phrasing. However, the trend is shifting towards a more transparent and straightforward style. By mastering legal writing in plain English, you not only improve your document’s readability but also enhance communication and legal comprehension for all parties involved.

featured image for legal writing launch on colloquial phrases

Colloquial Phrases in Legal Writing: Understanding and Avoiding Informal Legal Language

In legal writing, clarity and precision are paramount. Yet, one of the common pitfalls many lawyers and law students face is the use of colloquial phrases and informal language. This blog delves into the essence of colloquial expressions in legal writing, their impact on legal documents, and why it’s crucial to avoid them. We’ll cover a variety of areas, including:
What Are Colloquial Phrases in Legal Writing?
The Impact of Colloquial Language on Legal Documents.
Common Examples of Informal Legal Language.
How to Avoid Colloquialisms in Legal Writing.
Benefits of Using Plain Language in Legal Documents.
Conclusion: Striking a Balance Between Clarity and Formality.
Colloquialisms can muddle legal documents, making them less precise and professional. Legal jargon, while sometimes difficult to understand, aims to provide specific and unequivocal meaning. But where do we draw the line between complicated legalese and overly casual language? This blog aims to provide guidance on understanding and avoiding informal legal phrases, offering practical legal writing tips to enhance your legal documents.

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