Throughout my career in the legal sector and working with the international legal community, I have found that there are certain challenges that are common to the majority of non-native speakers of English when writing legal letters.
I have summarized some of these challenges below and provided guidance and examples for creating a more accurate and professional legal letter:
1. Too informal- A letter should be professional even when written in a plain English style. The more informal style of an email, is not acceptable in a letter.
2. Writing in the passive- In general, prefer the active voice over the passive. Using the passive voice - where an outside force acts on the subject of the sentence - can cause confusion. It's best to have the subject of your sentence do the acting and have it precede the action.
3. Using archaic words - Modern letters should not include words such as hereunder or abovementioned.
4. Misuse of prepositions- The main problem for the non-native speaker is remembering which preposition to use. There are no clear rules to follow in this respect, but some good examples are set out below:
5. Using uncountable nouns incorrectly. Some nouns in English are uncountable. In other words, they are not used with a or an and do not have plural forms. Here are some examples:
6. Beware of false pair words. Many words in English look and sound alike but can have very different meanings. It is important to be aware of the more common of these false pairs.
1. Formerly means in the past, previously, or in earlier times (e.g. ‘she was a lawyer formerly’).
1. Formally means conforming to convention, ceremony, and proper etiquette (e.g. ‘the committee will be formally organised’).
2. Its is the possessive form of “it”, (e.g. ‘this house is cheaper than its neighbours').
2. It’s is the contraction of “it” and “is” (e.g. it’s always raining in London’).
3. Eligible means satisfying the conditions to do or receive something (e.g. ‘you are eligible to enter this competition’).
3. Illegible means not clear enough to be read (e.g. ‘your handwriting is illegible’).
4. Biannual refers to something that occurs twice a year. (e.g. ‘they held biannual conferences; one every autumn and one every spring’).
4. Biennial refers to something that occurs every two years (e.g. ‘meetings of the legislature are biennial, although special sessions may be called by the governor’).
5. Practice is a noun meaning the action of doing something rather than the theories about it. Practice is also the spelling for the verb in American English (e.g. ‘my doctor’s practice is in London’).
5. Practise is the British English spelling of the verb (e.g. ‘I need to practise my French’).
About the Author
Elahe Ghazinoori founded EMG Associates, a legal consultancy firm, in 2006 having formerly practiced as an in-house solicitor for a telecommunications company. As EMG Associates' principal presenter, she has a wealth of experience in providing inspiring and engaging training sessions.
Elahe has trained hundreds of lawyers and legal professionals around the world on subjects such as company law, commercial law, contract law, drafting skills, partnership law, insolvency and bankruptcy law, corporate finance, intellectual property and dispute resolution.
Elahe lectures for BPP Law School in their Legal Practice department on subjects such as business law and private company acquisitions. She also worked as a senior training consultant for over 5 years for one of the world’s largest corporations, American Airlines.
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