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The Ten Million Dollar Comma

The Ten Million Dollar Comma on

Here’s why you can’t put a price on quality legal writing

If the legal sphere hinges on anything, it’s the letter of the law. The highest standards of writing are a benefit in any field, but law and legislation rely on it above all other things. Whether working in a litigation or non-litigation position, a legal writer will carry the responsibility of not only helping to represent and communicate with clients, but also the integrity of their firm. Simply put, a legal writer must have precision and clarity in their work.

How precision writing can be priceless

In 1872, a rogue comma cost the American taxpayers over $2 million; more than $38 million today. Only this year, an ongoing UK legal suit was settled which saw an entire company closed down after a single mistyped letter “s”. Consider the Tokyo share trader’s numerical error which led to a blunder of 67.78 trillion yen (over $487 billion).

Precision is essential. And legal writing requires a balancing act between legal accuracy and client accessibility.

The many skills of a qualified legal writer 

The bedrock of writing is solid spelling, syntax, and grammatical structure; doubly so in the case of legal writing. Judges in particular have no patience for poor legal writing (as this archive attests).

Harvard Law School neatly summarizes the numerous tasks legal writers may execute in carrying out their duties. At the job’s core are analytical and logical strengths built upon an exceptional grasp of grammar, detail, and citation. At any given time, a legal writer may be called upon to draft a memo or brief or to foresee potential arguments from their firm’s legal opposition.

Depending on the style of writing that’s required, legal writers may also have to display rhetorical and persuasive skills. These skills flow from more than legal savvy; if a writer has to attempt to persuade a party on behalf of a client, then they must possess the ability to appreciate that other party’s situation. Likewise, in communicating with their own clients, everything should be crystal clear.

There’s no cut and paste proposal or response when it comes to legal writing. Every draft has to be tailored perfectly to its recipient.

An example of legal knowledge and client awareness

The art of addressing law in writing lies in conveying the proper legal gravity, yet not over-simplifying or allowing ambiguity. Let’s suppose that a client or another party is receiving a letter from a firm. Many recipients will have little to no awareness of legal terminology. In those instances, they’ll be hoping that everything they read will be understood, rather than muddy or confuse what may already be a distressing situation. It’s up to the writer to ensure they do.

All legal writers must be able to follow the standards for citing authority in their jurisdiction (such as this example for Florida). The contents of the highlighted source will be a matter of everyday practice for some, and indecipherable “legalese” for anybody else.

Modern media allows for the publication of citation updates to occur instantaneously, rather than printed versions being released months or years apart. As a result, it’s more important than ever for a writer to stay informed on proper citations.

Legal writing and the first impression

The power to engage as well as educate is another key aspect of legal writing. Legislative research, references, and awareness of the audience allow a writer to connect with a reader, be they a member of the same firm, a client, or a judge. A specific tone can make a good first impression and/or foster or detract from relationships.

This tone must be, first and foremost, professional. Whether conveying good news, bad news, or ongoing developments, a legal writer must choose words with care. Information and compassion are what any client would wish for from a legal firm. A legal writer can provide both.

At Boss Certified Realtime Reporting, we’ve been providing nationwide court reporting services for trials, depositions, mediations, and more since 1995. If you’d like help or more information, you can call us at 954.467.6867 or complete our contact form to let us know how we can assist.