A Writing Tip for Lawyers Doing Newsletters

May 1, 2013

As someone who has been writing legal newsletters (or similar) for about 15 years, I speak with authority on this subject. I’ve also helped to train a boatload of lawyers with respect to drafting a variety of documents, both formal and informal.

The problem is that most lawyers are wholly unfamiliar with the concept of “audience.” Let me use the example of acronyms, since this will help me get to the point that much faster. Say you’re a private practice lawyer writing a brief email to your client, specifically an in-house lawyer who specializes in PRC corporate law. Would it be acceptable to use “MOFCOM” to indicate the Ministry of Commerce in that email? I would say yes.

However, if you’re writing a memorandum for that same client, an opinion that may be passed around internally by that same corporate in-house guy, say to the General Counsel or to the CFO, CEO, the Board of Directors, etc., is it still OK to use an acronym like MOFCOM without defining it first? If the company is a foreign one, the answer is a resounding “no way.” Normal practice would be the usual “blah blah blah Ministry of Commerce (“MOC”) blah blah.”

And now my actual point. I’ve noticed that not only do lawyers have a lot of trouble switching from the different audiences noted above, but they are really terrible at writing in a marketing situation. Sure, they can write formal stuff for a brochure (maybe), because the same writing rules and style generally apply.

But ask a lawyer to write a newsletter or blog? Bleah. You get stuff like this:

As one of the three anti-monopoly enforcement authorities in the People’s Republic of China (the “PRC” or “China”), the National Development and Reform Commission (the “NDRC”) is in charge of the examination and regulation of price-related monopolistic activities.

Now, this is not bad writing. It’s perfectly fine, and certainly good enough for a newsletter. There are no errors or Chinglish here, which is always a turn off.

But when you’re writing a newsletter that is going out to a wide audience, let’s drop the lawyer writing style, huh? Noting the abbreviation for China/PRC looks goofy and childish (the writer does the same thing for “EU” later on — {sigh}). If you write out “People’s Republic of China” and then later refer to “China” or “PRC,” no one is going to get confused. This is not a contract whose language will be parsed in the future by some judge to determine whether the parties actually meant Mainland China or Greater China, including Hong Kong, etc. In other words, lawyers writing this kind of thing need to chill out and adopt a more informal writing style that is easier for the reader to get through without giggling.

As to the NDRC acronym, the article in question was about that agency, and after using “National Development and Reform Commission” in the first sentence, no one is going to start scratching their head if you simply call it “NDRC” the second and subsequent times.

One compromise, if you’re looking for one, is the one I use sometimes in informal emails and this blog, which I’ll call the “slightly more informal acronym reference.” For example, instead of all the messing about with bold, bequotation-marked acronyms, a simple reference, which I believe journalists use, is a lot less off-putting. For example, “the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) is quite busy these days . . . ” Not so jarring.

Are you bored yet? OK, I’ll let you go. One final note: I took the above quote from the “China Matters” newsletter (PDF) put out by the Paul Hastings law firm. The newsletter is a good one, and I wasn’t trying to single them out for any particular reason. I just happened to be reading that one today.

4 thoughts on “A Writing Tip for Lawyers Doing Newsletters

  1. D

    Just follow some of the style guides like AP’s or NYTimes’ versions. For example, the “correct” way to handle acronyms and abbreviations is to write the full name in the first instance and then just do the abbreviation in future instances — there is absolutely no need to put it in parentheses the first time.

    Also, acronyms that are pronounced as words should be in lowercase. For example, it is correct to write Mofcom, but not MOFCOM since we say “Mofcom” as a full word. If we pronounced each letter like “IBM” then we should capitalize all letters. We write “UN”, not “Un” when we discus the United Nations; but we should write “Unesco”, not “UNESCO” since we do not say each letter when we refer to that organization. It is acceptable to capitalize the letters in a logo or for branding, but when writing, you write it like you say it. These are acceptable style methods approved by both major media and your English teacher ;)

    1. Stan Post author

      See, that’s the problem. There is no style guide for what I’m talking about. There is one for legal writing/citation, but the whole point is that one shouldn’t be using the usual style guides for PR/marketing writing. The whole point of the latter is to best connect with the reader, so arbitrary rules are not going to get the job done necessarily. If I’m reading something from an “expert” in China law, and I see “Mofcom” when everyone else writes “MOFCOM,” I’m going to question that guy’s expertise. Simple as that. My English teacher wouldn’t have survived one minute in this environment!

  2. Dan

    Back when I used to judge trial court competitions at the University of Washington Law School, I would always harp on the way the law students/mock lawyers spoke to the mock jury. They would say things like, “at what time did the defendant disembark from the said vehicle.” I would ask them if they spoke like that before they went to law school and then talk about how people already hate lawyers as it is. I would then suggest that they just say something like “when did Mr. Jones get out of his car?”