The basic job function of a paralegal or legal assistant requires professional writing. Whether you are writing a brief, email, correspondence, or research notes, learning to hone your paralegal writing skills will help you save time and become an important asset in your firm.
In today’s fast-paced legal world, your writing skills can help you achieve that raise or promotion you have in sight or help you stand out during your next interview. Below are some helpful tips to elevate your legal writing skills.
1. Keep Your Legal Writing brief
Having an extensive vocabulary does not mean you should embellish all of your writings, especially, when corresponding with clients and other legal professionals. Stick to the key points you are trying to convey and do not allow your message to become lost in translation.
2. Communicate in a professional manner
Using “lol” and “btw” in a professional email is unacceptable. With all of today’s technological advances, communication is becoming less professional and more intrusive.
Impress your boss by keeping all of your writing professional by following these rules:
- Do not abbreviate words unless professionally acceptable (i.e. state names, etc.). This includes formally spelling out “do not” and “will not” and avoiding “don’t,” “won’t,” etc.
- Do not assume you may use the first name of the party you are corresponding with unless you have been given leave to do so.
- Do not be inadvertently offensive in your communication with others. Remember that there is no room for political or personal ideology in professional communication.
- Do be polite and courteous in your communication, even if the subject matter is distasteful.
- Unless you have a personal relationship with the party you are communicating with, and the subject matter is personal to you, keep your writing formal.
Find more paralegal and legal assistant communication tips for maintaining professionalism using the 7 C’s of Communication.
3. Get Very Familiar with Microsoft Word
I was shocked to discover how many legal professionals are still using Microsoft Word (“Word”) like a typewriter! Word is an incredibly complex and amazing software that, when used properly, can save you time and frustration. Improving your paralegal writing skills begins with the software you use. Take some online Microsoft courses or, at the very least, do some online research about the benefits of using Word to help with your legal writing skills.
Here are some features you can take advantage of:
- Utilize automatic numbering so that your pleadings and documents do not contain paragraph numbering typos. You can take automatic numbering a step further to create headers and more for your paragraphs.
- Use auto text and quick parts for reoccurring words, sentences, and whole documents. This feature saves you a lot of time and helps to keep your writing consistent.
- Do not use the space bar for indentations. Should you need to reformat your document, these spaces can create work product havoc. For one indentation, you can utilize the tab button, however, if you are trying to create an indent format for each paragraph, utilize Styles instead.
- Use Styles so that all of your documents have a cohesive and acceptable format and eliminate formatting errors (having two different font sizes in a document, etc.).
- Create your own hotkeys in Word. Creating and using hotkeys allows you to avoid having to stop and search for things like special symbols or commonly used phrases. A good example of this is the subsection symbol (§). It is a 4 click process to insert the symbol (insert-symbols-symbol-§). By creating a hotkey specifically for the subsection symbol, your fingers never need to leave the keyboard for the mouse, saving you time and frustration!
Consistency and dedication are key. It takes time to set up and remember your hotkeys. Creating templates can seem tedious and time-consuming. However, taking the time now to implement these steps can save you from mistakes in the long run and help you become a more productive paralegal with the paralegal writing skills of a pro!
4. Do Not Reinvent the Wheel, But Do Be Careful When Reusing Documents
When you are reusing documents from your files, practice caution. Accidentally leaving the wrong name or term in a contract can be detrimental.
Scrub your documents carefully. Use find and replace versus manually searching the document to avoid human error. For documents that you use on a regular basis, create templates and use fields as placeholders for regularly changing information.
5. Do Not Skip the Review Process
For your writing projects, follow these helpful tips: write, review, and then read it aloud.
It is very easy to scan through a document on a computer screen and miss that “from” is spelled “form” or “and” is spelled “an”. Reading the document aloud will help with these errors.
Always use spellcheck on everything you send out, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. Typos reflect poorly on you and your firm. Need a checklist to follow before hitting send on paralegal communications? Check out this checklist for proper email etiquette and review.
6. Do Not Plagiarize
Be sure to give credit where credit is due. Do not plagiarize any piece of text for any reason. Use the proper citations and cite your work.
7. Stay Organized
Organization is key to all forms of writing. For large legal writing projects, use an outline to organize your thoughts into a cohesive format before you begin writing. Keep your notes and emails organized and respond to communications in a timely fashion. Staying organized will help you grow and succeed in your paralegal or legal assistant career.
8. Keep Your Desk Tidy
While notes and paper are important, with all of the technology available today, you no longer need to surround yourself with stacks of papers and post-it notes. By using software such as Microsoft One Note and To Do, along with the program Sticky Notes, you can create a digital notebook of upcoming tasks, reminders, and tickler files thereby eliminating the need to clutter your work area. This becomes particularly useful if you must suddenly work from home.
Improving your paralegal writing skills is a process. At the beginning of my paralegal journey, I found that keeping notes around my computer, which included a reference sheet for my hotkeys, links to citation generators for easy citation makers, and placing my templates on my desktop screen for easy access, helped me remember to use these shortcuts. I did not build my auto-text and quick parts libraries overnight but, every time I found myself having to repeat a document or phrase, I add it to my library. Now, using these tips has become second nature.
I hope these tips will help you show your boss, or potential new firm, that you have the skills needed to tackle any writing project with professionalism.
Meet the Author
Angela Reel has been a legal assistant/paralegal for more than twelve years. She also has extensive training in Microsoft Word. Angela is currently pursuing an associate’s degree from Eastern Gateway Community College with a focus on paralegal studies.