How to Proofread Legal Documents Like a Pro

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Proofreading legal documents is the meticulous process of reviewing and correcting written legal material to ensure accuracy, clarity, and consistency. This practice is crucial for lawyers, paralegals, and anyone involved in legal writing.

Proofreading these kinds of documents is like walking a tightrope—you need to find a balance, use precision, and a trained eye to spot every potential pitfall because, let’s face it, when it comes to legalities, there’s no room for error.

Legal documents are not your average reading material. They are complex, jargon-filled, and demand absolute precision. A single error can lead to misunderstandings, disputes, or legal liabilities.

This article breaks down what makes proofreading legal documents unique, the prerequisites before you begin, details you should never overlook in legal documents, common errors found in legal documents, the essential proofreading tools, and tips for improving your proofreading skills. Read on so you can start proofreading legal papers with confidence!

What Makes Proofreading Legal Documents Unique?

Proofreading Legal Documents

Proofreading legal documents isn’t just scanning the info and checking for typos. A good legal proofreader should double-check that every term, clause, and punctuation mark is legally sound and unambiguous.

Legal documents are binding agreements. So, the stakes are super high. Here are a few reasons why proofreading legal documents is its own unique beast that’s separate from any other area of proofreading:

  • Really Complex Language: Legalese is a language of its own, filled with specific terminologies and phrases that must be used correctly. To some, it may as well be an alien language for how much sense it makes. You don’t need to be a lawyer or paralegal to proofread legal papers, but you need to talk their talk.  
  • Extra Precision: Legal documents have to be precise. There’s no budging on that. Ambiguities can lead to different (often incorrect) interpretations, which can be costly. A misplaced comma or decimal point can bring everything crashing down.
  • Unique Structure and Format: Legal documents usually follow strict formats and structures that keep the heavy information neat, concise, and easy (well, as easy as possible) to navigate. Any deviation can lead to unwanted questions about the document’s validity and the professionals involved.

What Are the Prerequisites Before You Begin Proofreading?

There are a few prerequisites before you tackle proofreading a legal document. These tips will help make your job easier and can help you determine if it’s even a project you want to take on. So, before your first legal proofreading project, deeply consider the following:

You Have to Understand the Document’s Purpose

Every legal proofreader needs to know what the document is supposed to achieve and its purpose. Is it an employment contract, a legal brief, maybe the paperwork for the sale of a home, or even a will? Each type has its own nuances and will determine what you need to bring to the table.

Always Familiarize Yourself with Legal Terminology

Legal Terminology

As I mentioned, a good legal proofreader should already be familiar with the most common terminology and jargon used in legal documents. It is another language you should know well if you want to do a good job.

Create a Handy Checklist

I love a good checklist. They help me focus and ensure I don’t miss anything. Create a checklist for yourself before you begin the proofreading project. It can be anything you think you’d need help with.

This could be something that helps you triple-check formatting consistencies, a read-through for proper legal terms, correct citations, etc.

How Can You Systematically Approach Proofreading?

A systematic approach to proofreading is just a fancy way of saying you need to make sure nothing is overlooked. Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to keep at your desk:

  1. First Read-Through: Start with a full read-through of the document to understand its overall content, purpose, and structure. Now, you have a clear picture of the whole document. Don’t make edits yet; just make a few notes for yourself on key problem areas to focus on.
  2. Focus on Sections: Now, you can break the document into manageable sections and review each one carefully. I recommend creating a copy to do this so you have one clean original.
  3. Check for Consistency: Now it gets technical. Pull out those handy checklists I told you to make and scan the document for consistent use of terminology, formatting, and citation styles.
  4. Verify All Facts and Key Figures: This step is so important. Take your time and triple-check all dates, numbers, and factual information mentioned in the document for accuracy. I like to do this out loud because I’m far more likely to catch a mistake when I hear it.
  5. Proofread Backwards: This is an unconventional method, but I promise it can help you spot typographical errors more easily. When we normally read, our brains tend to skip over certain words or letters. It doesn’t do that when we read backward.
  6. Use a Final Checklist: Refer to your all-encompassing checklist that lists all the key things you should have checked and ensure all potential errors are handled.

What Details Should You Never Overlook in Legal Documents?

Never Overlook

When you’re proofreading any sort of legal document, some details are simply non-negotiable. Like these!

  • Definitions and Clauses: Make sure all definitions are clear and that clauses are unambiguous. If you have to give it a second thought, then it’s not clear enough.
  • References and Citations: Review all the references and citations used within the document are accurate and correctly formatted.
  • Punctuation: Legal punctuation is critical. Misused commas or semicolons can change the meaning of a sentence. Misplaced decimals can create a load of financial issues.
  • Numbering and Cross-References: Double-check that all numbered sections and cross-references match up as they should.

What Are Common Errors Found in Legal Documents?

Despite the meticulous efforts of even the best human proofreaders, they’re still just that. Human. Here are a few of the more common errors found in legal documents:

  • Typographical Errors: Simple typos can be embarrassing and misleading, making everyone involved look unprofessional.
  • Ambiguous Language: When vague terms or phrases are overused, it can lead to different interpretations, which, as you can imagine, create all sorts of problems.
  • Incorrect Citations: Misreferencing cases or statutes can undermine the document’s credibility, and when it comes to legal situations, this is the last thing anyone wants.
  • Formatting Issues: Like any type of important document, inconsistent formatting can make the document look unprofessional and cause confusion among the parties involved.

Which Proofreading Tools Are Essential for Legal Professionals?

In the digital age, several tools can help streamline the proofreading process:

  • Grammarly: The Premium version is an advanced tool that scans and checks for grammatical errors and improves the clarity and conciseness of the writing.
  • PerfectIt: It’s designed specifically for legal documents, which is great in this case! It checks for consistent formatting, terminology, and citation styles—an excellent tool for legal proofreaders.
  • ProWritingAid: Similar to Grammarly, PWA offers in-depth reports on readability, grammar, and style, which are crucial for legal writing.
  • Lawrina: This provides templates and resources to make sure your legal documents are up to standard. Honestly, it’s a must-have for professional legal proofreaders.

How Can Regular Practice Improve Your Proofreading Skills?

Like any other skill, your legal proofreading will improve with practice. I promise! Regularly proofreading documents will help you develop a sharper eye for detail and better understand legal writing subtleties. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Practice with Sample Documents: Do a Google search to find and use sample legal documents to practice proofreading skills. There is no risk, and it is excellent practice!
  • Join Legal Writing Workshops: Participate in workshops to learn from experts and peers. You can find these locally or by doing a quick Google search for an online workshop that suits your needs.
  • Review Peer Work: Reviewing documents written by others can help you spot errors more easily in your work.

What Tips Do Legal Experts Offer for Proofreading Documents?

Legal experts like lawyers and paralegals have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to proofreading. But their time is valuable, and they may not be available to help you. So, here are some of their top tips to get you started:

How Can Regular Practice Improve Your Proofreading Skills
  • Take Breaks: Proofreading of any kind can be mentally exhausting. Take breaks every so often to keep your focus sharp.
  • Always Read Aloud: Reading the document aloud helps you catch mistakes you might miss when reading silently. You could also use Microsoft Word’s Read Aloud feature and have the program read back the document in audio form.
  • Change the Format: Print the document or change the font style to see it with fresh eyes. (Always keep an original, though!)
  • Use Multiple Passes: Don’t try to catch everything in one go. Focus on different types of errors in separate passes—once for punctuation, once for formatting, once for citations, etc.

Are You Ready to Do Some Legal Proofreading?

Proofreading legal documents demands a blend of attention to detail, a systematic approach, and the right tools.

By understanding the unique challenges of legal proofreading and implementing the strategies I outlined in this guide, you can ensure your legal documents are precise, clear, and professional.

Remember, the key to mastering legal proofreading is practice and perseverance. Now, go forth and proofread like a pro!
You can find more resources and templates to streamline your legal document creation with Lawrina.