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I stumbled across this great phrase, smelling legal, on Wayne Scheiss’ legal writing blog. What a fantastic description of how too many lawyers are taught to write. It’s not hard to see how lawyers get there: we spend three years doing little but reading snippets of archaic, poorly written cases. And too often, legal writing teachers encourage those smelly legal words like “aforesaid,” “bring an action against,” or “in the event that.”

The key to great legal writing is having two vocabularies: your legal reading vocabulary, and your legal writing vocabulary (a concept I picked up from Bryan Garner’s excellent book, Legal Writing in Plain English). Your legal reading vocabulary must include all those smelly legal words, or else you can’t be a competent lawyer. Your legal writing vocabulary, though, should contain the plain English translations of those smelly legal words and phrases, such as:

  • prior to/subsequent to: before/after
  • bring an action against: sue
  • in the event that: if
  • in order to: to

What’s your favorite smelly legal word or phrase? I confess as a young lawyer I had a bit of an addiction to inter alia; it just sounded so gloriously legal and slightly mysterious. Using it properly signaled to everyone I had cracked the code, yanno? Of course, now I just wince when I see that phrase used in place of “among other things.”

Jennifer Alvey trains lawyers how to write sweet-smelling legal memos, briefs, and contracts. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.