Drafting legal documentation is nothing new for lawyers and attorneys. You’ve gone through the courses, read the books, and put it all into practice. But there are some ‘flaws’ with legal writing that often result in a low-value, low-quality document that can damage your reputation and credibility.
Bryan A. Garner, author of Legal Writing in Plain English, notes that “each generation of lawyers trains the next to follow its ingrained habits” as part of the “age-old cycle of poor legal writing”.
If you want to become the go-to law firm to handle people’s legal affairs, you need to step up your game. It’s time to unravel any bad habits and poor practises that can mean the difference between winning and losing both clients and cases.
If you want to draft professional, high-quality legal documents that help you increase your client list, and your bottom line, here are 5 best practices to follow in 2022 and beyond:
1. Naming Conventions for Files & Fields
Have you ever needed to find a file on short notice and not been able to put your hand on it? As you well know, extreme patience is not a virtue of many professionals practicing the law, nor your clients who want you to find a resolution to their case quickly. A well-thought through filing and naming system improves your customer service and operational efficiency.
Here’s a quick round up of how to name your files and fields to improve efficiency. You can also read our full blog on best practices for naming files and fields for more tips.
Use standardized descriptions – keep them simple and use descriptions that everyone understands.
Use a standardized date format – whether you choose “YYYYMMDD”, “MM-DD-YYYY”, or another format, ensure it remains consistent across all file names to make them more easily searchable.
Label versions – Using only words like “revised” or “final” can lead to costly mistakes. Recording the version number, such as “V1/V2”, or using the date, will leave less room for error.
Record your naming conventions – everyone at the firm needs to know your naming conventions for when they’re searching for files and naming them. Keep it in a central place that is accessible at all times.
Field naming conventions – when dealing with variable data, such as a client’s name or the date, standardized field names are particularly useful when using an automated document to ensure the data is in the correct place.
2. Correct use of grammar
There’s little excuse for grammar and spelling errors in legal documents. It’s not professional and damages your credibility. Worse than that though, grammatical errors could mean the difference between winning and losing. Such as in the 2002 case of Rogers Communications Inc. vs Bell Alliant, where the use of one comma cost one of the companies $1M (CAD).
Bell Alliant wanted to cancel their contract with Rogers, which stated their agreement: “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”
The question is – could the contract be terminated at any time, provided a one year notice was provided, or only after the initial five-year term? Based on the rules of punctuation, the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) ruled in favor of Bell Alliant.
3. Keep it accessible
Legal jargon can be incredibly confusing for your clients. Make your documents easily understandable by clearly outlining the meaning of any technical language used throughout the document. This will reduce any back-and-forth explanations that lengthen the process and eat into the time you could be spending on new cases that generate additional revenue.
Alongside including definitions, you should also mark the most relevant information in your documents to make them easier for your clients to digest. The quicker they understand and sign the document the quicker you can move their case along.
4. Avoid the “passive voice”
In most cases, the “passive voice” in legal writing only makes your sentences longer and harder to understand. Grammarly notes:
“[With the active voice] The subject is something, or it performs the action of the verb in the sentence. With the passive voice, the subject is acted upon by some other performer of the verb.”
Using the active voice removes ambiguity and, where needed, makes it clear who is responsible for what. The exception is when you strategically use passive voice to deflect or soften certain information, or when the subject is unknown.
5. Use automated templates
Using document templates across your firm creates consistency (language, format, tone and style, etc) and reduces margin for error. Why waste precious time re-creating similar documents when you can simply add specific information into a document where the majority of the work is done for you?
To further improve efficiency, you can use automated templates. Automated templates are easy to use and fully customizable with the click of a button.
Draft contracts in minutes, populate multiple documents simultaneously, automatically pull client data from your CRM to create custom legal documents, and even streamline template management with conditional fields that delete or insert words, sentences, or paragraphs based on specific client needs.
Browse Woodpecker’s free automated templates – all the heavy lifting done for you!
Take repetitive legal documents off your plate with Woodpecker’s pre-built templates to get you started. We have a wide selection of templates, from retainers and legal pleadings to non disclosure agreements and discovery requests.
Download these templates and input your own information, or populate them online with our client questionnaires, which automatically generate your documents without ever having to open Word.