In legal writing, plain and simple language is always best. But there are times when words can overlap or repeat in a way that confuses the reader. The answer? Abbreviate and define. But do it wisely.
Why does some legal writing contain terms that seem needlessly formal, such as a specific address that’s defined as the “Subject Property,” or a relevant contract that’s called the “Supplier Contract?”
As a new legal writer, this mystified me, but I dutifully imitated the briefs and memos I saw until I understood why attorneys use defined terms. My writing got better once I understood how to strategically shorten concepts to help the reader better picture the facts in my argument.
Eliminate Repetitive or Long Phrases
Take a sentence like this: “Plaintiff’s second claim for relief sets forth its claim against Defendant for insurance coverage relating to the claim made against Plaintiff by a person claiming to be injured on Plaintiff’s property. In its claim, Plaintiff claims…”
I’m tired already. Aren’t you? What a nightmare. And how many different ways can the word “claim” be used?
You don’t want partners or judges to be tired or confused reading your written product. You want them to be engaged, clear-headed, and focused, so define it once, and avoid repeating unnecessary words and phrases.
Shortened, Defined Terms Add Conceptual Flow
Now read this: “The Coverage Claim asks Trapezoid to defend Blue Ridge against the Schmidt Complaint.”
To add clarity to a sentence or even to a document, you’ve got to do some legwork first. Legal writing can involve complex factual scenarios. Add confusing language to the mix, and you have a document that can be needlessly difficult to read.
This means that there will be times when you’ll need to define a term upon its first use to have a cleaner, simpler shorthand going forward. Styles differ on how to do so. Many lawyers choose parentheses and quotes, or just parentheses, the first time they define a term. For example:
- John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt becomes “Mr. Schmidt.”
- Mr. Schmidt alleges he was hurt on the property of Blue Ridge Red Wagon Manufacturing Corp. (“Blue Ridge”).
- Mr. Schmidt filed a complaint on January 2, 2022 against Blue Ridge alleging slip and fall injuries (the “Schmidt Complaint”).
- Plaintiff Blue Ridge notified Defendant Trapezoid Insurance Company (“Trapezoid”) of the Schmidt Complaint the following day, January 3, 2022.
- In the current litigation, Blue Ridge asks Trapezoid to defend Blue Ridge against the Schmidt Complaint (the “Coverage Claim”).
Some lawyers choose not to use quotation marks or parentheses, reasoning that the reader is smart enough to figure it out for themselves. They would simply call Trapezoid Insurance Company, for example, “Trapezoid” later in the text.
Other attorneys choose a mix. For instance, it’s fairly common to refer to an individual by title and last name, so I probably wouldn’t define “Mr. Schmidt” using parentheses, but I would for the Schmidt Complaint. Find the way your firm or supervisor prefers to shorten phrases and follow this style.
Choices About Shorthand Can Help Persuade
Styles differ here, too, but my view is that acronyms aren’t very persuasive. Any writing choice you make should serve the purpose of the written product and should help to tell your story. Shorthand terms are no exception.
Take as an example a client named Blue Ridge Red Wagon Manufacturing Corp. “Blue Ridge” makes the client seem more sympathetic to me than “BRRW” or “BRRWMC.” Again, consult your colleagues about how to shorten names. It may be the case that the client actually goes by “Blue Red” in the community and will be referred to that way in the documents. Conversely, a more emotionally removed “Plaintiff” might just be the way to go if you’re drafting the defendant’s motion to dismiss Blue Ridge’s complaint.
Similarly, the “Schmidt Complaint” conveys that a real individual is alleging they’ve been hurt. That little bit of personalization—as opposed to “the underlying complaint” or “the January 2022 complaint”—might help persuade a court that an insurer ought to help pay for the injured person’s claim.
Although shortening can work to your advantage, never shorten in a disrespectful way. Judges won’t appreciate it. Always use the title the party uses (Ms., Mx., Dr., or Professor, for example) when referring to an opponent. Don’t burn your credibility with a supervisor or a court by coming across as rude. “Plaintiff” and “Defendant” are always acceptable.
For an organizational party, I also prefer to adopt the opponent’s chosen abbreviation or acronym for itself. Doing otherwise seems antagonistic, will make related briefs confusing to read, and is just unnecessary. The judge will wonder, “Are ‘Blue Ridge’ and ‘BRRW’ the same company, or not?” You’d much rather have the court focus on your substantive arguments, not a linguistic distraction.
Presenting a brief, memo, or research write-up to a senior attorney with succinctly defined terms will improve the flow of your writing. It will also show that you want to make things clear and easy for the reader—which is always appreciated.
Best of luck with all your written work product, and stay tuned for more tips that will help you stay sure-footed when you take those first legal writing steps as a new lawyer.
Bloomberg Law subscribers can learn more pointers on legal writing on our Core Litigation Skills Toolkit page; our Professional Perspectives from legal practitioners on Persuasive Brief Writing and How to Write a Research Memo; and our Checklists on Getting the Assignment, Managing & Responding to Client Needs, and Writing Up Research Results.
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