Legal documents are the most important tool of the legal profession. They are mainly created to advocate, inform, persuade and instruct. Although proper drafting of a legal document takes much time and practice, superior legal drafting skills are essential for lawyers to succeed. Every word in a legal document should accurately reflect the intended meaning and be tailored to the needs of the recipient.
Moreover, legal documents that embody the same research and message would vary greatly in content and tone based on the document’s recipient. For example, a defense writ submitted to the court must defend and persuade. A memorandum to a client must analyze the issues, report the state of the law and recommend an appropriate course of action.
Accordingly, successful lawyers should properly organize their legal documents and create a roadmap by using visual clues to guide their clients. Well-organized legal documents guide the client to the intended goal and promote readability.
Herein below are some main features of legal documents:
- Legal documents contain a great deal of technical terminology, which is unfamiliar to the nonprofessional (e.g. waiver, restrictive covenant, promissory note). Much of this vocabulary is derived from French and Latin. These terms must reflect special meanings. For example, the term “consideration”refers, in legal English, to the price that one party pays to the other in return for a service.
- Legal documents are characterized by conspicuous absence of punctuation. This arose from a widespread idea among lawyers that punctuation was ambiguous and unimportant, and that the meaning of legal documents was contained only in the words used and their context. However, in modern legal drafting, punctuation is used to clarify the meaning.
- Legal documents use couplets and triplets. In legal English, drafters string together two or three words to convey a single legal meaning. Examples of this are “null and void”, “fit and proper”, “due care and attention”, “terms and conditions”, and “promise, agree and covenant”.
- Legal documents sometimes apply an unusual word order. At times, the word order appears distinctly strange. For example: “Before me, John Howards, Notary Public, Mr. Mark Henry, Attorney at Law, appeared and submitted….” There is no single clear reason for this, although the influence of French grammatical structuresis certainly a contributory factor.
- Legal documents contain unfamiliar pro-forms, such as “the same”, “the said”, “the aforementioned” etc. The use of such terms in legal texts is interesting since very frequently they do not replace the noun but are used as adjectives to modify the noun. For example, the said John Smith.
- Legal documents use pronominal adverbs. Words like “hereof”, “thereof”, and “whereof” (and further derivatives, including -at, -in, -after, -before, -with, -by, -above, -on, -upon) are not often used in ordinary modern English. They are used in legal English primarily to avoid repeating names or phrases. For example, the parties hereto, instead of the parties to this contract.
- Legal documents use names with “-er, -or, and –ee” endings. Legal English contains some words and titles, such as employer and employee; lessor and lessee, in which the reciprocal and opposite nature of the relationship is indicated by the use of alternative endings.
- Legal documents use phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs perform a large role in legal English, as they do in standard English, and are often used in a quasi-technical sense. For example, parties enter into contracts, serve [documents] upon other parties, write off debts, and so on.
Ahmed Shaban Dawood is a highly professional translator in the fields of law, accounting, banking, stock exchange and economics. Ahmed Shaban is the Head of Translation Department at Shalakany Law Office, and a freelance translator for various multinational companies, a legal writing lecturer in a number of highly reputable educational institutes that provide training services to lawyers, accountants and university graduates.