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Legal writing involves the analysis of
Legal writing places heavy reliance on authority. In most legal writing, the writer must back up assertions and statements with
Legal writing values precedent, as distinct from authority. Precedent means the way things have been done before. For example, a lawyer who must prepare a
Legal writing extensively uses
These features tend to make legal writing formal. This formality can take the form of long sentences, complex constructions, archaic and hyper-formal vocabulary, and a focus on content to the exclusion of reader needs. Some of this formality in legal writing is necessary and desirable, given the importance of some legal documents and the seriousness of the circumstances in which some legal documents are used. Yet not all formality in legal writing is justified. To the extent that formality produces opacity and imprecision, it is undesirable. To the extent that formality hinders reader comprehension, it is less desirable. In particular, when legal content must be conveyed to nonlawyers, formality should give way to clear communication.
What is crucial in setting the level of formality in any legal document is assessing the needs and expectations of the audience. For example, an appellate brief to the highest court in a jurisdiction calls for a formal style—this shows proper respect for the court and for the legal matter at issue. An interoffice legal memorandum to a supervisor can probably be less formal—though not colloquial—because it is an in-house decision-making tool, not a court document. And an email message to a friend and client, updating the status of a legal matter, is appropriately informal.
Transaction documents—legal drafting—fall on a similar continuum. A 150-page merger agreement between two large corporations, in which both sides are represented by counsel, will be highly formal—and should also be accurate, precise, and airtight (features not always compatible with high formality). A commercial lease for a small company using a small office space will likely be much shorter and will require less complexity, but may still be somewhat formal. But a proxy statement allowing the members of a neighborhood association to designate their voting preferences for the next board meeting ought to be as plain as can be. If informality aids that goal, it is justified.
Many U.S. law schools teach legal writing in a way that acknowledges the technical complexity inherent in law and the justified formality that complexity often requires, but with an emphasis on clarity, simplicity, and directness. Yet many practicing lawyers, busy as they are with deadlines and heavy workloads, often resort to a template-based, outdated, hyperformal writing style in both analytical and transactional documents. This is understandable, but it sometimes unfortunately perpetuates an unnecessarily formal legal writing style.
Recently a variety of tools have been produced to allow writers to automate core parts of legal writing. For example, automated tools may be used by transactional lawyers to check certain formalities while writing, and tools exist to help litigators verify citations and quotations to legal authority for motions and briefs.