Effective Writing Skills Fundamental for ParalegalsApril 21, 2014
One of the most common questions heard at paralegal networking events is, “What is the most important skill set a paralegal should possess?” The responses seem to vary, including technology, organization, multitasking, etc. While these qualities are essential for any paralegal, the hidden truth is that the most important paralegal skill is effective writing. In the digital age, though, it seems that writing is a neglected skill in the field. The time of pen and paper has been replaced with text messages, blogging and tweeting. Although we live in a technologically advanced society, the ability to write well is still a highly coveted skill in the paralegal field. While the areas of law are wide and varied—from litigation to estates and trusts, plaintiff/defense, criminal/civil—the art of clear, concise and compelling writing spans across any type of law or practice group.
Whether a student or seasoned paralegal, it is essential to maintain strong writing skills in any position. While paralegal duties may include organizing records, communication with experts and preparing for trial, many of the day-to-day duties of a paralegal involve some element of writing, one of the basic foundations of communication. This duty stretches across the legal field in both litigation and transactional areas. In the world of speed and technology, it is second nature to adopt a more relaxed writing style. In almost every aspect of our lives, email and text messages have replaced cursive writing and formal responses. However, in the legal field, a more formal course of writing is still an expected process.
The initial correspondence from the firm, corporation or government entity to an attorney, client or court is often the first impression the individual has of the law firm or paralegal. Presentation of the document, including physical appearance and content, is key to a good impression. The document must set forth a neat appearance with proper formatting, i.e., spacing, margins, fonts and page numbering. Text needs to be properly organized. A sloppy appearance or poorly worded paper can signal to your supervisors, peers and/or opponents the lack of attention to detail or pride in your work.
The work product that you generate under the supervision of an attorney is not only a reflection of you, but also of the legal team and employer. The text must be grammatically correct and free from typographical errors. As any good paralegal knows, proofreading is not complete with a simple touch of the spell-checking button. Instead, print and mutually review the paper for proper punctuation and mechanics. The use of abbreviations and emoticons should be avoided because they may be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The document must contain properly structured sentences set forth in coherent, unified paragraphs. If the document contains citations, review the text for outdated case law or errors. Any names, statistics or credentials should also be verified.
When drafting correspondence, use a consistent format. A paragraph should contain an introduction/topic sentence setting forth the central point, followed by organized sentences outlining the focus with supporting details in a logical format. The concluding sentences set forth a resolution, opinion or proposed plan of action. The object is to engage and connect with the reader while at the same time conveying the position of the client. Adopting an organized thought process will allow you to communicate a definitive point to the reader in a clear and concise manner. When the first draft of the document has been completed, read it out loud and listen to your voice to ensure the proper position is conveyed. This review affords you the opportunity to revise the tone or content to avoid information being misconstrued.
The art of communication serves as a bridge to enhancing writing skills. Paralegals need to be cognizant of the particular writing style of a supervising attorney. While a paralegal may have an established academic background, a flare for creativity or years of work experience, it cannot be assumed that his or her writing style is the only way. Efforts should be undertaken to collaborate with the supervising attorney to establish the scope, outline, format and content of a document. The ability to understand and adopt the writing style of a particular attorney can aid a paralegal in ultimately conveying a desired position to the reader. This communication and mutual respect between a paralegal and supervising attorney may strengthen the working relationship, resulting in more detailed projects, other tasks and higher-level responsibilities.
Finally, an often overlooked item in the area of legal writing is standardized forms or templates. Although an online form may already be tailored to a certain area, the content, such as parties and facts, is unique to a specific case. While forms serve as a time savings, care must be taken by a paralegal to ensure that the form is modified and complete. The form is only as accurate as the information that is input. It is the responsibility of a paralegal to review the form for incorrect parties, blank spaces or inadvertent/missing check marks. Also, if the form requires additional written facts, the information should be presented in a cogent, organized manner. The form should also be verified for compliance with local rules as well as proper jurisdiction prior to review by the supervising attorney.
Effective writing is an ever-evolving skill. Much like the area of technology, writing is a skill that you build through practice and experience. Remaining open-minded and objective may lead to modification and improvement in writing skills. For example, if your supervising attorney edits a draft, retain and review the changes. A paralegal must not become disgruntled following constructive criticism. Instead, remain professional, embrace the feedback and cultivate it into a positive experience to hone your writing skills. Ask questions of your immediate supervising attorney to clarify any uncertain expectations with respect to a particular writing assignment. Should you note weakness in a particular area, such as use of legalese or improper grammar, register for a continuing education class through your local paralegal association or college to refine those skills. Other issues such as expressing thoughts more clearly can be developed via writing exercises. These elements will ultimately serve to polish your skills.
The final document is a reflection of you, the client and your employer. The attention to detail in writing sets a paralegal apart at the firm, corporation or government entity. A paralegal who strives to master the art of writing is a treasured jewel. Although we live in an era of digital media, effective writing in all areas, including email, inter-office communication, correspondence and documents, still serves as a pathway to a successful career as a paralegal. The ability to write effectively will assist the legal team in representing the client, thereby gaining you the respect of supervisors and peers resulting in valuable experience in other professional and personal endeavors.
Source: The Legal Intelligencer