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This cautionary note was included (in red, boldface type!) in one of the e-mail notices that go round at my firm, notifying lawyers of prospective clients and asking if there would be any conflicts in acting for them.

Some matters may be more sensitive or interesting or salacious or newsworthy than others, but as a matter of law and legal ethics they can’t be more (or less) confidential.

As lawyers we owe the same duty of confidentiality to each client, and the standard is as high as it gets.

As a matter of English grammar, the very confidential warning is as bad as it gets. It’s like saying something is very unique. It’s unique (or confidential) or it isn’t. These adjectives are absolutes.

Or, as a partner once said to me of a research task, ‘This is somewhat urgent’. I was about to reply, ‘Oh, so it isn’t urgent’, but, anticipating a sense-of-humour failure, kept quiet and just got on with the job.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


Thanks to Jason Wong of McCarthy Tétrault LLP for the inspiration for this tip.

The Privy Council Office has created an online database that allows users to search for federal Orders in Council (OICs) made between 1990 and the present. 

If you cannot retrieve your OIC from the database, you can request it by emailing the Privy Council Office directly at If the OIC is available, it will be emailed directly to you (usually within one working day); if not available, you will have to check with Library and Archives Canada (LAC). 

LAC has digitized microfilm copies of orders in council from 1867 to 1916. You can search the Orders-in-Council database by going to

If your Order in Council is available neither from the Privy Council Office nor through the database you will have to contact LAC directly to get a copy.

Susannah Tredwell


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)


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)


‘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)


“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


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)


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)


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)


Based on a discussion on the CALL listserv – many thanks to Martha Murphy for all the information.

One of the services typically offered by law libraries is legislative tracking. Examples of this service include tracking a bill from First Reading to Royal Assent (and beyond) and alerting users to proposed changes to an existing piece of legislation. 

Depending on how much legislation they need to track, librarians can either check the source (e.g. LEGISinfo or legislative website) on a regular basis or they can set up an alert for any legislative changes. The federal government and some provinces (such as Nova Scotia and Quebec) offer RSS feeds that can be used to track legislation. CanLII also has an RSS feed.

Recently a question came up on the Canadian Association of Law Libraries listserv as to what tools people used. The following is a list of resources to track Canadian legislation that were suggested by CALL-ACBD members:

  • Codify Legal Publishing allows users to set up alerts, with the first three feeds being free 
  • GovtMonitor allows users to track and monitor federal and provincial (Ontario and Alberta) legislation, regulations, Hansards etc.
  • LexisNexis’s Canadian Legislative Pulse allows users to monitor the progress of bills as well as notifying them of any proposed changes to legislation
  • LexBox includes an add-on for free CanLII alerts
  • Optimize Employment and Optimize Pensions offer legislative tracking
  • Quickscribe allows users to set alerts for any changes to BC Statutes and Regulations; users can also set up keyword alerts for BC Hansard ad Orders in Council 
  • Thomson Reuters’ Canada Statute Service
  • WestlawNext’s Legislative Watch “allows you to track individual bills or bills relating to specific statutes for deeper, more efficient research.” 
  • WestlawNext Canada and Lexis Advance Quicklaw allows users to set up alerts

Susannah Tredwell