advice you can use — short and to the point — every Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday

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All Our Tips

  • Practice

Smartphones provide lawyers with constant availability and the convenience of responding to queries and communications from any location at any time. But our devices can also be a source of distraction and addiction that discourage productivity and negatively impact our mental health.

A recent survey by Deloitte found that the average person checks their smartphone 52 times a day, while another study found the average person spends more than 3 hours on their phone daily. My own phone tells me that I receive an average of 78 notifications each day, causing a daily average of 73 “pickups”—each one interrupting workflow and concentration.

Making an active effort to reinforce self-control and limit our smartphone use can go a long way to ensuring we control our devices and our devices don’t control us. Dr. Gabrielle Golding, a lecturer with the University of Adelaide Law School, recommends lawyers pursue “digital detox” by scheduling predictable time away from smartphones and computers each week, slowly acclimatizing oneself to feeling “disconnected”, refraining from using any digital devices in bed, and taking up a non-technological hobby.

It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with applications such as iPhone’s Screen Time and Android’s Digital Wellbeing functions, which allow users to set limits on when and how they use their smartphone. Blocks of phone-free time can be set in advance, or limits can be placed on certain applications. These applications also provide daily summaries of just how much time a user spends on individual applications—the results of which may surprise you.

Shawn Erker (@ShawnErker) is Legal Writer & Content Manager at LAWPRO.


  • Research & Writing

My discovery of Richard Wydick’s Plain Language for Lawyers was serendipitous.

I had started sending out weekly writing tips by e-mail at my firm and was in constant need of new material (and I still am).

Someone on my street had left a box of books at the kerbside, for passers-by to take what appealed to them. On the top of the pile was the fifth edition of Wydick’s excellent book.

Its messages are simple and important:

  • omit surplus words
  • use base verbs, not nominalisations
  • prefer the active voice
  • use short sentences
  • arrange your words with care
  • choose your words with care
  • avoid elegant quirks
  • punctuate carefully

Richard Wydick died in 2016, and I was very grateful to receive permission from his family and publisher to quote from the fifth edition in my own book on legal writing (which collected those weekly emails).

A sixth edition of Plain Language for Lawyers has now appeared thanks to Amy E. Sloan of the Baltimore School of Law.

It preserves the basic structure and ‘classic features’ of the 5th, but adds a new chapter on document design, updates to some of the material and new exercises.

Recommended reading for all legal writers. And if you can’t find a free copy among a neighbour’s discards, it’s only US$25 from Carolina Academic Press.

I’m not leaving either edition by the side of the road.

And I’m hoping I can cite Wydick 6th in the second edition of Guthrie’s Guide.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  • Research & Writing

I used to work with someone who might fairly be described as curmudgeonly.

This person detests people who reply to an e-mail with a one-word Thanks.

Needless replies are a bit annoying, but it’s also hard to know when to terminate an e-mail exchange.

The advice I give to law students in my seminar on e-mail in a professional setting is to err on the side of politeness, especially in relation to more senior peeps.

Even at the risk of irritating a curmudgeon.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  • Research & Writing

‘Keep it simple’ is good advice – but advice that many lawyers fail to heed.

As soon as I am able
Seen in automatic out-of-office e-mail replies or heard on voicemail.

There is nothing wrong with as soon as I can, and it certainly sounds less pretentious.

For the avoidance of doubt
This phrase is pompous, no doubt about that.

It also indicates that you needed to explain things better in the first place.

Don’t admit failure: avoid it.

Someone recently e-mailed me the latest iteration of the presentation.

So much fancier than a good old draft or version.

But seriously, how much iterating do you really do?

And an iterative process is just work that requires more than one step. (Which is to say, most of what we do.)

Thus is an adverb, so there is no need to add an adverbial –ly ending just to sound all formal.

And come to think of it, you should avoid thus as well – something simple like like this will work just fine, and will sound more normal.

As for thus far, never.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  • Practice

Making it happen is not always easy.

Chris Riley of Lexology has some helpful suggestions for increasing lawyer engagement in what he calls ‘content marketing’:

  • write about topics your clients tell you they’ve been worrying about
    • describe the issue and propose a solution
  • don’t simply parrot news items
    • add your own perspective to the story or legal issue
  • keep it short!
    • Lexology’s readers overwhelmingly prefer to read something between 600 and 1,000 words in length
  • use analytical data available through Lexology (and your own firm’s marketing department)
    • identify articles and topics that have worked in the past
  • consult Lexology’s ‘popular articles’ list to see what readers are interested in
    •  write something on these topics (or avoid them if you want to be original)
  • ask a more senior lawyer for an idea or outline and flesh it out
  • get your library or knowledge management peeps (if you are fortunate enough to have them) to look out for novel topics and breaking developments
  • read the Lexology daily newsfeed to see what’s current
    • this may inspire you (or make you realise you could do a better job than your competitors)

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  • Research & Writing

“Private acts” are acts that are passed to deal specifically with the private interests of a person, company, or organization; for example the Acme Assurance Company Incorporation Act, S.C. 1931, c. 71 is a private act. Private acts can be found both federally and provincially. 

One challenge with researching private acts is that they may not be consolidated in their jurisdiction’s Revised Statutes. If this is the case, a researcher will have to pull the original act (which may be quite old) and any subsequent amendments, and produce a consolidation manually. On the plus side, private acts tend not to be frequently amended, so it is not unusual for a private act to currently read the same as it did when it came into force.

The majority of jurisdictions across Canada have produced tables of private acts which are very helpful when researching them. The following is a list of these tables:

Federal: Table of Private Acts 

Alberta: the Table of Private Statutes of the Province of Alberta is available in print at the end of the annual Statutes of Alberta volumes and on QP Source (a subscription database)

British Columbia: Table of Private, Special and Local Acts and Unconsolidated Public Acts that lists all private and other unconsolidated acts along with their amendments. 

Manitoba: Private Acts

New Brunswick: Index to the Private Acts of the Province of New Brunswick, 1929-2012 [produced by the Canadian Bar Association]

Newfoundland and Labrador: Table of Local, Personal, and Private Statutes

Nova Scotia: Index of Private and Local Acts (to 2016)

Ontario: Table of Private Statutes (private statutes that were enacted after 1999 can be viewed in Source Law)

Saskatchewan: Table of Private Acts (up to and including February 15, 2017)

Susannah Tredwell


  • Research & Writing

Does it still strike you as odd to see Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep described as an actor?

Actress is in fact a relatively new word in English, because no females performed on stage in England before the seventeenth century (although the OED does say that actor was applied to both sexes in the early days of the mixed stage).

Even now, not everybody is using actor for both women and men. There are more than 75,000 women who describe themselves on LinkedIn as an actress. Oscars are not yet awarded to the best female actor – much less to the best actor, regardless of sex (or gender).

Other ­–ess words faded away longer ago. It would be rare nowadays to ask to speak to the manageress of a shop. Even early in the twentieth century the terms poetess and sculptress fell from use because they sounded faintly derogatory (OED quotes a passage in which poetess is described as ‘somewhat outmoded’ in 1903). Waitress is disappearing – but so too is waiter, both largely displaced by server. One would still use priestess, but only in relation to a non-Christian, possibly historical religion (‘the priestess of Diana at Ephesus’), rather than for a female ordinand in the Anglican churches that have them.

If you are still using legal Latin, you may still also be referring to a testatrix, executrix or (possibly) administratrix (although Ontario’s Succession Law Reform Act uses the –tor forms for both men and women). Aviatrix is as dead as Amelia Earhart, but dominatrix is firmly entrenched (perhaps because no one would dare mess with one).

United States congressmen have been joined by congresswomen since the early twentieth century, but congresspersons or congresspeople never gained much terminological traction. (Do you remember Saturday Night Live’s send-up of The Village Persons?)

If the trend in English seems to be going towards the gender-neutral (or, actually, to the terms formerly applied only to men, like priest), continental languages have gone the other way.

In the days when there weren’t many, a female lawyer in France or Quebec used to be un avocat, just like her male counterpart; one now sees une avocate. In traditional European French, a female judge was madame le juge; madame la juge was the polite way to refer to the wife of a male judge. Quebeckers – either less polite or more egalitarian, depending on how you look at it – dropped madame la juge for the judge’s wife, and started using it for a Madam Justice.

A woman lawyer in Italy is an avvocatessa, and a female academic is a dottoressa or professoressa.

In Germany, the feminine equivalent of a Rechtsanwalt (lawyer) is a Rechtsanwältin, although the Federal Lawyers Code uses the masculine form as a ‘gender-neutral’ term. In academic circles, one is either Frau or Herr Doktor (or, if super-qualified, Herr or Frau Doktor Doktor or Professor Doktor).

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  • Research & Writing

On a recent Canada Day, someone on LinkedIn referred to O’Canada, which is clearly wrong. (O’ is confined to Irish surnames, where it is the anglicised version of the Gaelic Ó or Ua, meaning ‘descendant of’; M(a)c [or M’], as for the Scots, means ‘son of’).

But is it O Canada, Oh! Canada or what?

O, not followed by punctuation and closely linked in sense to what follows, is what’s called a vocative – and is correct in things like national anthems or hymns.

Oh is usually followed by punctuation and is more like a stand-alone exclamation tacked on to the rest: Oh, hell! Oh! what a scoundrel! Oh, no you don’t!

Usage of O and Oh has not always been consistent, however (think back to the revue Oh! Calcutta! if you’re old enough).

But O’Canada has never been OK.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  • Practice

Administrator’s note: thanks to Erin Cowling for this week’s tip.

We all know that taking a real vacation makes us less stressed, more focused, and in return, better lawyers, better employees, and better bosses. Even though I love my job, I still need a break from it. I need to unplug and unwind. I need to think about something other than the law. When I do, I return to my practice with more energy and commitment.

When I worked for someone else, I always took all my allotted vacation. I felt I was working hard and I rightly deserved the time off. Now that I have my own practice and business and can, in theory, take as much vacation time that I want, I take even less. I need to change that.

So, here is what I have learned, and what may help to ensure that you and I take our important vacations:

  1. Book the vacation time into your calendar in advance. Block off your 2020 vacation days now. Not nailing down the time off makes it easier to push back that much needed break.
  2. Take at least two weeks off. For me, one week is not enough to get the “law” out of my system and to unwind.
  3. Plan financially, especially for those of us who are sole practitioners or have our own businesses. If we don’t work, we don’t get paid. Factor your vacation time into your financial plan for the year. (In other words, don’t let money be an excuse to not take time off).
  4. Have someone cover your practice so you aren’t working on your vacation.
  5. Fiercely protect your time. Practice saying “No”. Say “No” to that meeting they want to schedule on your day off. Say “No” to that “quick” conference call while you are on vacation. And then provide an alternative date for when you are back in the office, relaxed and ready to work!

The bottom line: We need to give ourselves permission to take a break and forget about law for a while. We will be better lawyers if we do. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

[This tip was adapted with permission from Erin Cowling’s post, “My Biggest Mistake this Year…“]


  • Research & Writing

Odds are, the only way you used this word before you went to law school was to describe physical absence: I was absent from school that day because I had the flu.

Then, all of a sudden, in 1L you started saying things like absent evidence to the contrary because it made you sound all, like, lawyer-y.

Please revert to your pre-law ways. Without or even in the absence of will strike your non-lawyer readers as normal.

And that’s a good thing.

In a position …
You aren’t in a position to do X, Y, or Z?

Just say I can’t do X, Y or Z, which is more direct and avoids suggestions of awkward body poses.

This is an example of three syllables where one or two would suffice: show, say, suggest are all shorter – and actually clearer.

The lawyer said (pompously): Upon my return to the office …

 Please, just When I return or On my return. Or even When I get back.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)