The Dos and Don’ts of Proofreading for Legal Documents
  • 7-minute read
  • 29th February 2024

The Dos and Don’ts of Proofreading for Legal Documents

In the legal world, meticulous proofreading is a non-negotiable aspect of preparing contracts and agreements. And that’s not an exaggeration – if legal documents aren’t 100% error-free, there can be serious consequences, such as voided contracts, loss of clients, or even litigation. In this guide, we’ll take you through the essential dos and don’ts of legal proofreading so you can be sure your documents are clear, accurate, and ready for review.

What Are Legal Documents?

You’ve probably encountered a legal document in some form in your professional or personal life, even if you’re not a lawyer. In fact, some legal documents, such as wills, are recommended as standard protection for everyone. 

The term “legal documents” simply refers to contracts or agreements between two or more parties with legally enforceable obligations. They outline the rights and responsibilities of each involved party, including terms related to payment, delivery, and/or performance. Some examples of legal documents are:

  • Deeds and leases
  • Loan agreements 
  • Wills and trusts for estate planning
  • Power of attorney (a legal document that grants authority to an individual (known as the agent or attorney-in-fact) to act on behalf of another person (known as the principal) in specified matters, such as financial or healthcare decisions.
  • Employment contracts
  • Corporate bylaws and shareholder agreements
  • Insurance reports
  • Court orders

As you can see, while there’s a very diverse range of types of legal documents, the one thing they have in common is that they clearly outline the expectations and legal terms for all parties. Typically, they also detail the possible consequences for breaking the contract (e.g., termination of a housing or employment agreement).

The Dos of Proofreading Legal Documents

When proofreading legal documents, it’s important to take your time and thoroughly review each section (no matter how dry or repetitive!). Be sure to proofread in a quiet, distraction-free environment; this minimizes the risk of overlooking a potentially damaging error or inaccuracy. Taking your time during the initial proofread will actually save you time and effort in the long run, as addressing errors after an agreement has been drafted and signed can be a huge obstacle (and depending on the type of document, may not even be possible). 

Below are some more “dos” to keep in mind when reviewing legal documents.

Do: Verify Facts and Legal Terminology

Don’t assume that legal jargon or terminology is accurate – fact-check content and look up the definition and/or spelling of technical terms when necessary to ensure they’re used correctly and in the right context. This may involve cross-checking and verifying information using authoritative outside legal sources or dictionaries. If the intended audience is unlikely to be familiar with a specific legal term or acronym, consider defining it on the first usage to avoid confusion. 

Double-check the spelling and accuracy of facts like names, dates, addresses, etc. and ensure consistency throughout the document. Even minor mistakes can raise legal questions and undermine the credibility of the document – or even void its authority altogether.

Do: Review Citations and References

Some legal materials use specific citation styles to reference points like cases, statutes, and regulations. Two common style guides are OSCOLA and Bluebook – these are widely used by courts, law schools, and law journals in the United Kingdom and United States.

Do: Check for Ambiguities

Ensuring clear and precise language is always a primary goal of proofreading, but it’s especially important when proofreading legal documents. If a contract or agreement contains ambiguous, vague language with multiple possible interpretations, it can result in confusion and significant legal headaches for all parties. Pay close attention to word usage and sentence structure and revise for clarity where necessary. If you’re unsure what is meant in a particular section, don’t guess; leave a query for the writer(s) to address.

Do: Use a Checklist

When it comes to proofreading legal documents, the stakes are high – so creating a detailed proofreading checklist is essential. A checklist helps you stay organized and ensures you’re reviewing for every possible issue, especially because proofreading legal documents involves more than simply reviewing for correct grammar spelling. Here are some common proofreading points (some general and some specific to the legal field) to add to your checklist:

  • Consistency (e.g., with the numbering of sections and spelling of names and job titles)
  • Accuracy, such as with dates or other numbers/statistics
  • Grammar and punctuation (including making sure rules outlined by specific style guidelines have been followed)
  • Acronym and initialism usage
  • Homophones (it’s vs. its, they’re vs. their vs. there, etc.)
  • Compliance with legal guidelines or regulations 
  • Proper notarization and signature requirements
  • Protected confidentiality (e.g., redacted content) where necessary 
  • Clear and precise language
  • Cross-references and citations (make sure they’re accurate and in the correct location)

These are just a few proofreading issues to review for. Every legal document is unique, so always consider the legal context and purpose of the document when creating your checklist.

The Don’ts of Proofreading Legal Documents

Now that we’ve covered what you should do when proofreading legal documents, let’s review what you shouldn’t do.

Don’t: Overlook Small Details

Pay attention to seemingly minor details, like capitalization, spacing, and comma placement. Even the smallest oversight can make a big impact – for example, the lack of a serial comma in the description of a labor law resulted in litigation and cost a dairy company $5 million. Refer to your checklist frequently so you don’t miss easily overlooked style or punctuation issues.

Don’t: Proofread in One Sitting

Legal materials can be long, involved, and somewhat repetitive, so don’t try to proofread the entire document in one sitting and be sure to take frequent breaks to avoid eye strain and fatigue. It’s best practice to review a document at least twice – once to correct surface-level issues and a second time to check for coherence and address more in-depth topics. 

When you’ve finished proofreading, do a final check and get a fresh perspective by reading the document out loud. This will help you catch errors, inconsistencies, and awkward phrasing you might otherwise overlook when reading silently.

Don’t: Forget to Review Tables and Charts

Ensure that tables, charts, and captions are correctly labeled and formatted within the document. Check the preferred formatting specifications prior to proofreading – legal documents often have specific requirements mandated by courts or regulatory bodies. Also, verify that any data included in images is accurate and cited correctly.

Don’t: Skip Footnotes and Endnotes

Don’t rush through proofreading footnotes and endnotes. References and citations are essential to the reliability of legal documents, so they deserve as much attention as the main text. If you’re unable to fix errors or inconsistencies with footnotes or endnotes yourself, be sure to alert the writer to the issue so they can address it.

Professional Proofreading for Legal Documents

When drafting legal agreements, nothing is more important than the integrity of a document. Investing in professional proofreading services demonstrates your commitment to quality and ensures the finished product is clear, concise, and error-free. Schedule a call today to learn more about why professional proofreading is essential for a successful business.

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