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Transkills: supporting transition to University


Your objective in legal writing should always be to make your work as clear and coherent as possible. If your reader has to work to understand the meaning you are trying to convey you will have failed in this primary objective. It is not enough for you to understand what you mean if you cannot convey this to someone else. This will hold true for your future career, whether in the law or elsewhere.

In legal writing you should always choose a formal register and avoid colloquial expressions (“X got done for murder.”), contractions (e.g., didn’t, wouldn’t, can’t) and other less formal devices like exclamation marks and rhetorical questions. You should avoid complicated sentence structures and convoluted expression, and avoid the temptation to use long and obscure words where a simple one will do. Do not use legal jargon unnecessarily and particularly if you do not understand it. However, sophisticated ideas will sometimes need to be expressed in sophisticated language, so the use of precise language and correct grammatical forms is essential.

Be positive, not tentative, in your writing style. A whole series of sentences like “D could argue that… but the prosecution could argue that…” is not impressive. It is better to write something along the lines of: “D has caused the death of V which constitutes the actus reus of murder. However, it is less clear whether D has the appropriate mens rea for murder….On this basis, the jury could not find D guilty of murder.” Likewise, you should avoid writing circular sentences e.g., “She had the direct intention to murder because she intended to murder him.” A better sentence is: “The facts we are given state that she intended to kill V. Therefore, she has the necessary mens rea for murder (Cunningham)” or “As her purpose was to kill V, she has the direct intention to do so. Therefore, she has the mens rea for murder (Cunningham).” You need to spell things out for your reader/examiner and not assume that he or she can follow your internal thought processes.

Reviewing and editing supervision work is a final and vital part of the process. If you have not left enough time to do this, then you have not allowed enough time to write your answer. You must be prepared to go over your work and identify any spelling mistakes, grammatical mistakes and typographical errors. Assess whether you have really written a clear and coherent answer to the question. Correct your writing where necessary. It can often be a good idea to allow some time to elapse after finishing a first draft so that you can come back to it with a fresh mind. 

It is equally important to review the work when you get it back from the supervisor. Even though you may have moved on to a new topic and find it boring to revisit an old one, there is a lot to be gained from reviewing the topic once you have completed your study of it. Some of the advice may be generic – not related to the particular topic in hand, but more generally to your writing style, approach to structuring answers and so will be pertinent to your next assignment. Your supervisor is entitled to expect you to read and act on such advice, and to feel irritated if it is apparent from your next piece of work that you have not done so. Read the supervisor’s comments and make sure you ask him or her about anything you do not understand. Time permitting, redrafting the answer with your new knowledge is another helpful exercise, and will assist you in consolidating your understanding of the topic.