How to Prepare Legal Documents

Although preparing an effective legal document is not an easy task, it is not as arcane a task as many people believe it to be. Many of the principles of preparing legal documents are the same as the principles of good writing that apply to any written work. Other principles are specific to the practice of law. A good rule of thumb when preparing a legal document is to pretend that it is being presented as evidence in court and that the opposing lawyer is trying to twist your words to make them appear to mean something other than what you intended. If you can draft the document well enough to make this impossible, then you have drafted the document properly.

Things You'll Need

  • Legal dictionary
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    • 1

      Identify the parties clearly. First and last names are usually not enough--you will need identifying information such as an address or Social Security number that is sufficient to distinguish each person from every other person in the world. Be sure not to confuse the identity of an individual with the identity of the company that he represents--in many cases, companies rather than individuals are parties to a legal document.

    • 2

      Use terms consistently--don't use the word "car" in one sentence and the word "automobile" in the next sentence to refer to the same vehicle. In many cases, parties or terms are defined by the use of capital letters (for example, "...the mortgage held by Second Central Bank, hereinafter referred to as the "Mortgage"...)", where the term Mortgage is used consistently after that point. This may seem cumbersome, but it is often necessary to prevent opposing counsel from manufacturing ambiguities if the document is ever used in court. However, the use of definitions should not be overused to make a document look more "legal"--it should clarify rather than obscure the content.

    • 3

      Avoid "legalese" but don't be afraid to use a legal-sounding term if it is a legitimate term of art. Refer to a legal dictionary if you are unsure. For example, the use of "Party A" and "Party B" or "Smith" and "Jones" is certainly superior to unnecessarily cumbersome "Party of the First Part" and "Party of the Second Part." However, the term "springing executory interest" may sound arcane but is probably the most accurate and succinct way to describe what it refers to.

    • 4

      Use simple grammar whenever possible. Long sentences with more than one subordinate clause can often be interpreted more than one way. This can result in ambiguous double meanings for the same sentence. Such ambiguities could be seized upon by someone who is, for example, trying to avoid contractual obligations.

    • 5

      Break your document up into clear headings. Specify within the document whether the headings should be used to interpret the text or are inserted for reference only. For example, a price of "$10,000" might be alternatively payable in Japanese Yen if the heading reads "Payment" but probably must be paid in US dollars if the heading reads "Payment and Currency." If the headings are inserted for reference only, no such interpretation is available.

    • 6

      Pay particular attention to any signatures required to make the document legally effective. If an individual is signing on behalf of a company or under a power of attorney, this should be clearly noted. If a document must be notarized, a place for the signature of the notary public should be provided.

    • 7

      Check over the document to make sure it is flawless in terms of spelling, grammar and punctuation. Remember that the simple misplacement of a comma can change the meaning of a sentence and, in some cases, the entire document.

Tips & Warnings

  • Free sample legal documents of all kinds are available all over the Internet (see Resources). Be careful, however, to modify these documents to fit your individual situation. It is rare for two legal documents of significant length to be worded exactly the same.

  • If you are not a licensed attorney (or if you are an inexperienced attorney), make sure to have an experienced attorney check over your legal document before it is executed. In some cases, especially in property law, special phraseology is customarily inserted that would be dangerous to leave out. An example is the wording in a standard General Warranty Deed transferring title to real property--it contains six different warranties within a few words that might seem inconsequential to someone not trained in law.

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