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Balancing Life and Practice

   Proofreaders Wanted For Small Firm Lawyers

While even the most benign typo can be professionally embarrassing — small law firms rarely look to fill proofreading positions.


Wanted: Individual possessing excellent writing and grammatical skills for small law firm. Must be gifted working with all kinds of legal documents.

No, I've never seen a classified like this one. While lawyers recognize that spelling, punctuation, sentence structure and adherence to format are critical to their credibility — and that even the most benign typo can be professionally embarrassing — law firms of any size rarely look to fill proofreading positions.

About the Author

About the author: Robert M. Unterberger, Esq., is founder and president of Legal Writing Success (http://www.legalwritingsuccess.com), a company that specializes in providing legal research, writing and consulting to small law firms and legal departments. His solo practice involves class actions, catastrophic loss and commercial disputes. He may be reached at mail@legalwritingsuccess.com.

Like many of my peers I do my best to write, edit, edit again and make my filing deadlines. And in my small shop the chief proofreader is, well, me. Catching writing errors in legal documents is difficult enough in law firms of any size, even for institutional firms that offer layers of paralegal and lawyer support. But finding time to discover these errors may be even harder for small firm lawyers. One such lawyer even suggested that she has little opportunity to do more than merely skim pages — a dangerous practice. She observed that she isn't the only one in her five-lawyer office sending out pleadings "as is" because she didn't have a chance to proof it thoroughly.

The fact is that effective proofreading requires numerous minute and time-consuming tasks. Small firm lawyers, who are already stretched to the limit by the demands of their practices, often do not have what they perceive to be the luxury of editing slowly and carefully. One solo told me he simply didn't see an economic benefit to spending hours on proofreading.

So how do you get small firm lawyers "on board" with proofreading? A simple metaphor may suffice: Lawyers should consider themselves to be in the publishing business, churning out a wide variety of legal documents (e.g., complaints, memos, reports, appendices). I would argue that small firm lawyers and solos are particularly well situated to take control of their publishing tasks — from first drafts through distribution.

Some recommendations to improve your proofreading:

Proofreading Software
The first step toward improved your proofreading is sitting on your desk. Your PC's word processing program is an essential part of good proofreading. Specifically, both Word and WordPerfect correct word choice, grammar and sentence structure. In addition, they are designed to follow changes, additions and deletions in your text. These changes from one version of a document to the next — sometimes called redlining — are second nature to the large firm lawyer but may be overlooked by the smaller practitioner. Indeed, many small firm lawyers forget or choose not to save the various versions of their documents. And that's too bad. One of the easiest ways to "clean up" text, transitions and citation (among other things) is to simply go back to an earlier version of the document you're working on. Lawyers complain that proofreading is awful work because they feel like they're reinventing the wheel. You don't have to. Spend some time and work through the document comparison modules of your word processing program.

In the event you discover that neither Word nor WordPerfect handle your document changes particularly well, you might consider spending money on a proofreading program, such as Deal Proof or DeltaView. Proofreading programs generally track document changes but can be customized to your practice area. An important caveat: While these add-on programs offer customization and support, they may be expensive for a small law office due to their license fees.

Avoid The Temporary Fix
When it comes to a concerted effort at improving proofreading, I believe that small firms really do have an advantage. Too often large firms address institutional problems, such as writing and editing, with quick-fix solutions. And when it comes to proofreading, larger law firms spend tremendous sums on writing workshops, videotapes and CLE. While the intentions of such programs are good (hey, I teach legal writing workshops), unfortunately the fix is temporary.

In contrast to large law firms, smaller firms can communally develop habits for good writing and proofing among their lawyers. In a small practice, lawyers can meet formally or informally to discuss the firm's written work product. Good writing (and proofreading) raises the bar for the entire firm.

Make Proofreading Rules
Unfortunately, many of our expectations for good legal writing were shaped in our first-year law school writing class. I know lawyers who still get night sweats over written comments like "awkward", "what do you mean" and "not persuasive." This bullet approach to critiquing legal writing is so awful and so ingrained in lawyers' psyche that we don't know how to edit our own and other's work. While law schools are now attempting to address these kinds of comments, start now by coming up with your own set of rules for proofreading.

So avoid the "cherry picking" school of editing, foisted on us in law school by legal writing instructors. Instead, try something new. For example, a solo lawyer I know says she reads discreet sections of documents several times. On the first "pass" she look for typos. On the second, she asks herself whether the transitions work. On the third "pass" she queries whether her thesis works. And so on.

Here some other methods for proofreading. Simply find someone in your office to read your document. Small firm lawyers have a distinct advantage here. Many solos, for example, work in suites with lawyers who have never read their writing before. Great. Try to arrange a "trade" with another lawyer with whom you share office space (obviously keeping in mind confidentiality issues). If you must use a lawyer from your own firm, try to find someone outside your practice area.

If you must proofread your own legal writing, try to create a "soft" deadline for an initial draft. That way you can set aside the document, go onto other work, or even sleep on it. When you come back to the document, hopefully you'll be in a more relaxed and objective state of mind to critically edit. A small firm lawyer I know shared with me his practice of collecting drafts of different assignments at the end of the day so that he can proofread all of them the next morning over coffee.

In the end, it doesn't really matter how you proofread. What matters is that you proofread before the judge, client or partner reads your document.

The In-House Proofreader
The legal press is filled with stories of institutional law firms with editing staffs. And while larger firms admirably do have senior-level legal editors, that's no reason why small firms shouldn't similarly be motivated to assign a chief proofreader. Again, here I would argue that small firms have a distinct advantage. Unlike large firms — where editing is generally left to paralegals and legal assistants — in small firms editing by necessity is reserved for lawyers. Advantage: small firm. No matter their proofreading prowess, large firm support staffs are generally admonished to keep their hands off the content of documents while editing. In a small firm no such "wall" or disconnect between content and edit exists. In a small firm, lawyers who proofread can also brainstorm with the author to determine what exactly the issues, facts and arguments really are, and edit accordingly.

In contrast to their large firm counterparts, small firm lawyers can literally review everything that goes out of the office. Indeed, it may be argued that the larger firms permit more of the "bad stuff" to get out.

Keep Reading
Resources for good legal writing have never been more accessible than they are now to the small firm lawyer. I remember that in the recent past, a lawyer's proofreading library generally consisted of dog eared copies of their first-year legal writing textbook and, perhaps, helpful texts like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, Richard Wydick's Plain English for Lawyers, and Bryan Garner's Elements of Legal Style. No more. In addition to local and online availability of CLE programs on legal writing and editing, today small firm lawyers can keep up to date through their local legal paper's writing columns, web sites devoted to legal writing and, more recently, legal web logs devoted to legal writing and editing, such as Inter-Alia.net.

The bottom line is that your credibility as a solo or small firm lawyer soars with careful proofreading. So take steps now to catch those embarrassing errors.

Copyright 2003 Robert M. Unterberger

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