A client recently told me he thought a document I had drafted for him sounded ‘smug.’ I was momentarily a bit miffed, of course. But there are at least 3 things to learn from this:
1. Tone matters. The ‘feel’ of a document is often at least as important as its content. It’s the written equivalent of body language, and – like body language – it’s the bit that communicates direct to the reader’s emotions. You always want the judge’s sympathy, if you can possibly get it. So annoying the judge by sounding smug, sarcastic or over-confident is a bad start.
2. The tone of your own writing is difficult to gauge, so for any important piece of writing it is useful to get someone else to read what you’ve written and tell you candidly whether there’s anything annoying about it.
3. If you are a client, this is something you can usefully contribute even if you don’t fully understand all the technical legal arguments that are being put forward on your behalf. Of course, you may have to be a bit careful about your own tone when you tell your adviser that what they’ve written sounds smug or arrogant. But if they’re sensible, they will realise you’ve told them something they need to know.