The quest for accuracy in legal writing can sometimes lead to what can be termed as “the illusion of completeness.”
Meticulous Accuracy Can Be Problematic
While the aim to be meticulously accurate is well-intended, it can inadvertently hinder the clarity and readability of the document. This creates a tension between the need for precise details and the equally crucial need for a text that is easily understood.
The drive for meticulous accuracy in legal writing is well-intentioned but can often detract from the clarity and readability of the text. To illustrate this point, consider the opening sentence of a recent appellate court opinion:
“A locomotive operated by Illinois Central Railroad Company (Illinois Central) injured Kelli Smallwood when it struck the automobile in which she was traveling.”
This sentence, while accurate and thorough, is cumbersome and detracts from the user experience. For starters, it raises the question of why the locomotive is the subject of the sentence when most lawsuits commence because the plaintiff initiates legal action.
A more straightforward version could be:
“This lawsuit was brought by Kelli Smallwood…”
The Sometimes Flawed Pursuit of Accuracy in Legal Writing
In their quest for comprehensive accuracy, legal writers often err on the side of verbosity. Phrases like “the automobile in which she was traveling” could easily be simplified to “her car,” without any loss of meaning or accuracy, unless ownership is a significant legal issue in the case.
Yet, many legal writers would argue against such simplification, insisting on keeping the longer version to maintain thoroughness.
In daily conversation, phrases like “her car got hit by a train” suffice to convey the idea. Legal writing should not entirely shun colloquial expressions, particularly when they enhance readability without sacrificing clarity or relevant detail.
Another point of contention is the inclusion of seemingly unnecessary details, like full dates. For example, stating, “On March 14, 2001, Kelli Smallwood was injured…” might suggest that the specific date is legally significant when it often isn’t.
A simpler alternative like “in early 2001” could convey the timing without causing readers to memorize irrelevant details.
The Balancing Act: Readability Versus Accuracy
In closing, while accuracy in legal writing is often important, especially in judicial opinions, it should not come at the cost of readability. A
well-crafted legal document should facilitate understanding while maintaining the necessary level of accuracy. In essence, good legal writing should strike a balance between the two.
Legal writers should liberate themselves from the notion that additional detail automatically confers reliability. Overemphasis on accuracy can make legal documents not just difficult to read but also susceptible to misinterpretation due to their complexity.
Improving your skills in legal writing doesn’t just mean adding more details; it also involves honing your ability to communicate effectively and clearly.
This might sometimes feel counterintuitive, especially for legal professionals who equate detail with thoroughness. But remember, good writing, particularly in legal contexts, often requires a nuanced approach that considers both accuracy and readability.
Counter-Intuitive Nuance in Legal Writing
A lot of good writing is counter-intuitive to the way lawyers tend to think (e.g., having the presumption that adding more detail is useful because it indicates trustworthy “accuracy”)
If you want to improve your legal writing, check out BriefCatch, a great product by attorney Ross Guberman.