4 Ways your Legal Drafting Sucks

Writing another article, huh?

One of the things people can’t stand about lawyers is the way we communicate.  In particular, the way legal writing shapes up is often complete rubbish to the “lay” person.

There’s lots of other reasons people hate lawyers, of course, but this is one we can start to address.

In this article I wanted to fire off some brief methods where you can stop yourself from sounding like what I’m going to call the “Anti-Human”.

Why Anti-Human?  Because it’s conversing (through correspondence) in a way with your clients that makes no sense.  It makes you sound not like a person with whom anyone would want a relationship, but rather like a robot spewing out pre-prepared lines at every available opportunity.  Written communications with your client are an opportunity to develop relationship.  Everything you write to them needs to appreciate that opportunity.

I understand that in some correspondence a certain degree of formality is required.  But even in the confines of formality we can write like people, not robots.  We sometimes “let ourselves go” with formal letters thinking that they are an opportunity to set out an essay/judgment style piece of nonsense that nobody in their right mind would read.

I’ve previously written about legalese, and that was good fun.  What I didn’t degenerate into was any specifics to avoid – well here are some specifics (code for “pet hates” – but hopefully by the end you’ll hate them too).

The Phrase – “We Advise That”

I cannot stand this phrase, which is a little frustrating because I see it about 100 times a week.  We advise that we act for Bob.  We advise that we accept your instructions.  We advise that we had a sandwich for lunch.  I advise that you can’t write a letter.

Guess what?  You can skip this phrase almost every time you might choose to use it.  Try it – you might even enjoy the freedom that comes from not starting your sentences that way.  It’s amazing just how many words there are out there than you can start with.

Latin and Archaic language

I would hope by now that this has gone, but just in case you still use it – STOP NOW.

Mutatis mutandis, inter alia, nunc pro tunc – for client correspondence and modern drafting these are things of the past.

Tempted to use the word “otiose” in correspondence?  Don’t.  It doesn’t make you sound smart.  It makes you sound like a schmuck.

Inappropriate Formality

Dear Bob versus Dear Mr Smith.  Clearly the latter is more formal, but is that always appropriate?  Check your salutations and your endings carefully.  How does your client sign off emails?  Casual, formal?

Sometimes your firm’s style guide will dictate what you must do here, but be wary of distancing yourself from your client relationship with these subtle cues, because although it might not seem direct it creates the impression that you are aloof rather than approachable.

Too Much Butt Covering

Tell me this – do you think clients can’t tell when most of your letter consists of information ONLY designed to cover your own backside?

They can.  And they hate it.

I understand that we need to protect ourselves, but too much emphasis on risk and not enough emphasis on useful advice, and you’ve transitioned into the Anti-Human arena.  Stay out of the habit – try writing the useful bits first, and only then add the butt covering.  I bet you’ll be surprised just how short a letter of advice can be without it.

Anything else?

Got any other anti-human habits for us to eliminate?  Let me know your pet peeves in the comments!


  • Another great article, Chris.

    My pet peeves are:

    1. ‘We confirm that’ for the same reasons as you hate “We advise that’;
    2. A sentence following the letter’s subject line that says ‘We refer to the above matter’. What else could you possibly be referring to? A lovely day you had at the seaside? It’s simply a waste of words;
    3. Petty point scoring in correspondence between solicitors. To a barrister (or a judge) reading this it just makes both sides look like they’re squabbling. If something in an opposing solicitor’s letter riles you up, take a deep breath and think about whether responding to it really advances the matter. And remember the maxim from social media: ‘Don’t feed the trolls!’ The same principle applies to legal correspondence.

  • I note that in the circumstances I anticipate that any phrase can ordinarily be binned should it, in the premises, add nothing. I expect.

  • Is it possible with saying these are my pet peeves with this but you fail to give an example of what may wish to write instead, might be more useful then merely complaining about it.

  • Steven, I agree with you on the “I refer you to the above”, but doing exactly that has proven more productive in having sensible replies because of laziness of people to properly peruse their emails. They skim. Thus referring to the subject line at the outset immediately enforces the impression that they must take proper note of the content of the mail.

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