A lawyer’s writing skills (or lack thereof) can have a direct—even severe—impact on clients’ interests.

Did an employer owe a former employee a $7.5 million commission? The court’s answer hinged on imprecise word usage in an employment contract. (Langford v. Paravant, 912 So.2d 359, (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. (2005))

Did an insurance policy cover a child’s injuries that occurred at a parent’s workplace? The court’s answer involved analysis of the careless placement of commas and a restrictive modifier in the policy. (N. Pointe Cas. Ins. Co. v. M & S Tractor Servs., Inc., 62 So. 3d 1281 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2011))

Did a defendant violate federal sex-offender-registration requirements? The court’s answer involved a discussion of Congress’s use of verb tense in a statute. (Carr v. United States, 560 U.S. 438 (2010))

Courts have been clear about the importance of writing and grammar in statutes, contracts, and other binding documents. When construing statutes, for example, the Florida Supreme Court has for decades repeated some variation of this dicta:

[t]he legislature is presumed to know the meaning of words and the rules of grammar, and the only way the court is advised of what the legislature intends is by giving the generally accepted construction, not only to the phraseology of an act, but to the manner in which it is punctuated.

(State v. Bodden, 877 So. 2d 680, 685 (Fla. 2004) (citing Florida State Racing Comm’n v. Bourquardez, 42 So.2d 87, 88 (Fla.1949))

The importance of writing and grammar makes sense because legal rights and duties are expressed in written words, and clarity is crucial.

Obviously, lawyers who do not write well are at a disadvantage when doing written work for a client. Similarly, lawyers who do not understand some grammar rules are at a disadvantage when reading legal text for a client because—

  • they cannot fully understand and apply court opinions involving grammatical analysis.
  • they cannot effectively use grammatical arguments for their clients’ benefit.

In short, lawyers who lack writing skills or grammatical knowledge risk violating at least two of the Florida Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct:

(1) Rule 4-1.1, which requires lawyers to provide “competent representation” to clients and

(2) Rule 4-1.3, which requires lawyers to act with “reasonable diligence” when representing clients.

Arguably, Rule 4-1.1 requires lawyers to overcome deficiencies in the knowledge or skills required to competently represent a client in a given case.

It is not enough for lawyers to rely on grammar-checking software when writing for clients. Grammar checkers can make errors, so users must be able to check the checker. Also, grammar checkers do not adequately teach grammar rules.

The good news: improving one’s writing skills and grammatical knowledge is easy. All it requires is a reputable grammar book and some time.

One of the most reputable is Harbrace, which has been around for decades under different names (e.g., Harbrace College Handbook, Harbrace Handbook, and Hodges Harbrace Handbook). As well as grammar and punctuation, Harbrace covers basics about writing clear sentences.

You can find the book by searching Amazon using the term “Harbrace.” Older editions are adequate for beefing up on grammar, and some cost less than $10.

[This post is cross-posted from The Professional, a publication of the Florida Bar’s Henry Latimer Center for Professionalism]

Deborah Cupples

Deborah Cupples is a Master Legal Skills Professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, where she teaches legal drafting. She has also taught courses in statutory interpretation and drafting, constitutional interpretation and revision (Florida), and art law. Her expertise lies in legal-document drafting (primarily contracts and legislation) and contract negotiation.

She wrote the book It Is About You: How American Government Works and How to Help Fix It. She co-authored two other books: one on legal-document drafting and one on grammar and style for lawyers.

Prior to joining the UF Law faculty in 2008, Cupples worked as an attorney in private practice. She continues to do pro-bono work and to work as a legal consultant.

She earned her B.A., M.A., and J.D. degrees all from the University of Florida.

Visit her Faculty Profile.

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