10 Things that Irritate Your Lecturer About Your Legal Writing
Want to avoid alienating your marker? Stay clear of these common legal writing errors:
1. Informal Language
Formal law assessments are – you guessed it – formal! Do not use colloquial, text-like or conversational language, unless your lecturer has indicated a more relaxed, informal style is appropriate (e.g. in reflections and in some presentations).
2. Strange synonyms
The use of complex or unusual synonyms is common in student papers, yet it can make for very jarring reading. Simple, direct language is best. It also demonstrates depth of understanding (do not worry that simple language will stop you sounding smart – we already know you are clever!).
3. Long sentences
If your sentence goes longer than three lines, you have a problem. When you finish your draft, try reading your paper out loud. If you cannot easily get through a sentence in a single breath, break the sentence in two (or three).
4. Grammatical errors
Pay careful attention to your spelling and grammar. Remember your audience: your markers are academics, whose lives are likely characterised by reading and writing essays. They will notice poor spelling and grammar. Do the additional draft. Also: spell check is not infallible; it might provide the correct spelling, but not the correct meaning of a word.
5. It is ‘High Court’ not ‘high court’
Capitalisation is important, and is a sign of respect for institutions, peoples, places. This important in the law. If you are referring to a court in general, it is not capitalised; but if you are referring to a specific court (e.g., the High Court or the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal), it is capitalised.
6. Judgment does not have an ‘e’
Judgment is without an ‘e’ if referring to legal decisions. Doublecheck this common error prior to submitting your assignment.
7. Tense and Person
Your makers are likely to have strong opinions about what tense they prefer. Stick to one tense. Do not mix present and past. Your markers will also likely have strong opinions about the use of person. Case in point: one of the authors of this blog hates seeing “I think” or “I believe” in a law assignment, but the other loves first person: “In this essay, I will….” Check what tense your lecturer prefers.
8. Direct quotes
Long, direct quotes can be interpreted as lazy writing in law assignments – particularly if you do not go on to explain its significance. Using short quotes and/or paraphrasing is typically a more effective way to convey your understanding of the material. After all, we are assessing your arguments/understanding; we cannot do that if you are quoting in excess.
9. Dot points
While it might be sometimes appropriate to use dot points in legal practice, it is downright dangerous to use them in a law school paper. They reduce the formality of the work. Only use dot points when you need to list several features or points in circumstances where putting them into a sentence or paragraph would be difficult for the reader to digest (and even then, think twice). It is more formal to list the individual points following a colon, separating out each individual point (words or phrases) with a semicolon.
10. Use of gratuitous Latin
Latin phrases – ipso facto, prima facie, ad idium, ab initio – are super fun, but not always super useful. Before you use a Latin legal term, ask yourself: why do I like this phrase? Is there a clearer way of conveying my meaning? Nine times of out ten, the simplest expression is the best expression.
For more information, check out this video on 10 Things to Avoid in Your Legal Writing.
This article was written by Rhanee Rego and Marie Hadley.
Rhanee Rego is a Solicitor, Sessional Academic and PhD Candidate at Newcastle Law School, University of Newcastle, Australia.
Dr Marie Hadley is a Lecturer and Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning at Newcastle Law School, University of Newcastle, Australia.