Learning to read law

As a legal translator, I’ve heard legal language dismissed pretty often. But really, it’s not as hard as you might think to start understanding what’s going on in a legal text! Below are some tips that might help you work through your lease, business contract, or case law so you come out on the other side more confident that you’ve understood the jargon:

1. Legal writing is mainly persuasive argument that follows a set structure. It’s a logic flow. Take your first pieces slowly, digest them paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, clause by clause. Read enough and you’ll start to notice patterns, which makes future reading much more accessible.

Alternatively, you can search for templates of the same type of law text here to help you see the basic framework from the start.

2. Take notes as you go to help keep track of the cast of characters, key terminology (capitalized nouns), and the main arguments at play, if you find they are buried under fluff or seem inconsistently used.

3. Recognize boilerplate for what it is—standard language that spells out a lot of definitions and assumptions. It can be tedious, repetitive, obvious… I sometimes skip it and then refer back when I get to a section that needs clarification, rather than trying to keep track of all the minutiae from the get-go.

4. Skim for keywords (by sight or by computerized search) to help you hone in on parts relevant to your query. This gives you a focal point, something to grasp hold of as you delve deeper into the jargon.

5. Accept that some legal writing is just poorly written. Don’t beat yourself up if you find it maddeningly obscure—you may be right! Take another go using a structured plan of attack, and walk away before you melt down. Stay calm in the face of madness.


A suggestion for a structured plan of attack:

Sketch your own brief of the document using a journalism approach: skim quickly for answers to specific questions, one at a time. Start with the Who, then the What, When, Where, How, and Why does it matter. Take breaks often.

You can also speed read and jot down the keywords that jump out at you (think of it like a reading version of one of those “hidden image” visual games—let the superfluous words blur together so the important ones can stand out).

Legal texts are often no more complicated or bloated than those long-winded speeches by that guy at your morning meeting, or academic papers you read in college. You can do this!

How did you learn to read legalese? What works for you when tackling a more complicated or new style of text?


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