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Legal Skills and Research: Legal Writing

Information and resources on legal skills and legal research techniques.

Further Online Resources

Below are a number of other online resources about legal writing

Other printed resources

Legal Reference links

Below is a selection of useful legal reference web sites.

Law dictionaries in print

Most UK legal dictionaries in the Bodleian Law Library are at shelfmark KL in the main UK collection.  Below is a selection.

Quick guide to Legal Writing

Legal Writing can mean different things depending on the context.  There is the meaning within a practising environment which focuses on drafting legal documents, client notes and precedents.  There is also writing within an academic environment and this covers reference management and plagiarism and good academic practice.  This page focuses on the later but there are resources for practice on the left hand side.

 There is no correct style for academic legal writing but below are some brief guidelines.  There are also a large number of resources that cover legal writing skills in the list on the left and information about more general writing skills, plagiarism and presentation in the boxes below.


 Tips for academic legal writing

 1.  Think of the Purpose of the writing

In legal writing you may be writing an essay or an answer to a problem question.  Always keep this in mind when you are thinking about style, tone and content.

 2. Spelling and Grammar

It is easy to miss spelling mistakes and so make sure you carefully proofread any document and ideally get a friend or colleague to read over your work as well as using a spell check tool.  Make sure you check your grammar and punctuation as this can affect tone and can mark down otherwise excellent legal content and style.

 3. Language

(a) Make sure the language is not too informal, for example try not to use the first person (unless describing a conversation) but equally try not to be too formal as this may not help the writing flow.

(b) Use appropriate legal terms.  You will come across terms that have specific legal context and so you should adopt these rather than using  layman vocabulary.  There has been a decrease in the use of Latin phrases but you will also come across doctrines and so remember to use these in the correct context. 

(c) Be aware that certain words will have different definitions in law than the normal usage.  Again there are resources such as legal dictionaries and words and phrases defined that will help.

 4. Quotations and footnotes

You will need to rely on quotations to back up your legal points.  These can be from textbooks but also from primary sources such as judgments.  Make sure the quotations are:

(a) Accurate and from an appropriate source. 

(b) Clearly presented (indented for example) and signposted

(c) Properly referenced as a footnote or at the quote itself.

 If quoting from a judgment it is best to give the judge's name as well as the case report reference and to make sure you indicate if the judge was a dissenting judge.


What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the copying of actual words or ideas without proper reference to the original source and with the intention of passing the work off as your own.  Plagiarism also covers where words have been added or taken away but the structure of the work is there and it has not been altered substantially to convey your own ideas and meaning. Plagiarism covers:

a) Copying from any written source: books, articles, speeches, diagrams, web pages, handouts, lecture notes, transcripts.

b) Copying from other students.  Even if you have worked together, if you have to produce separate reports or analysis it must not be identical.

Why is it wrong?

a) Because authors and researchers spend a lot of time and effort to produce work and this should be acknowledged and not stolen

b) Because it does not encourage individual thought and research and this is a skill that is essential to be successful in law.

Because of this academic institutions treat plagiarism very seriously and so take time to read the university's policy to understand any sanctions that may be taken if you are found to have plagiarised.

University of Oxford's policy and an excellent guide on Plagiarism can be found the on the Education Committee web pages.

 Tips on avoiding plagiarism

 It is sometimes hard to avoid using other people's work and ideas, especially if you are new to a subject.  Below are some tips on how to avoid it.

  1. If reading a work then try to read a whole section and chapter and then write down your own thoughts about what the chapter was about first without referring back.

  2.If you do make notes as you go along then remember if you write out exactly what they say (or almost word for word) underline it so that when you come back to the notes you realise that these were not your own words.

  3.Write down clear references as you make notes so that you are aware of the source and can acknowledge it.

  4.If you are working as a group then try and write your final report on your own so that your own ideas are represented and you do not  mistakenly use the same structure as your fellow students.

Presentation of research

Once you have done the legal research you need to be able to present it well.  The below is a list of tips to help.  There is also information under the Presentation, Citation, and Reference Management tabs

Tips for presenting research

  1. Organize logically

Try and think about the purpose of the research and organise the research in a way that answers the task or question you have been set

 2. Use good layout structure
Keep the structure clear and well thought out, use clear headings, paragraphs, numbers and bullet point to distinguish different sections

 3. Use correct spelling/grammar/syntax

Remember to proofread your work and if you can get someone else to read it through as well as a second pair of eyes will pick up on things that may have been missed.  Don't just rely on spell check software.

 4. Summarise and paraphrase and attribute correctly

Make sure you use quotations and footnotes well and fully reference any use of other sources

 5. Apply law to the facts

If you are researching for a problem question then make sure you have the right balance between the facts in your case and the law.

 6. Provide clear advice or conclusion

If you have to provide an answer to a legal problem then make sure you do this clearly

 7. Acknowledge materials cited 

Make sure you list any sources used