Rethinking “Should”: Advice for Clearer Legal Writing

attorney writing his notes

In the realm of legal writing, the quest for clarity and precision is not just a matter of stylistic preference but a fundamental necessity. The language employed within legal documents, contracts, and advisory communications holds the power to define rights, obligations, and outcomes. It is in this context that the word “should” demands a more nuanced understanding and application. Traditionally recognized as a modal verb, “should” carries with it connotations of advice, recommendation, and obligation. These associations are deeply ingrained in its usage across various forms of English discourse. However, the deployment of “should” within the framework of conditional clauses in legal texts introduces a level of ambiguity that can undermine the very clarity and precision that legal writing strives to achieve.

The essence of the issue lies in the dual nature of “should” — on one hand, it is a directive, suggesting what ought to be done; on the other, it can serve as a conditional marker, positing a hypothetical scenario. This duality is precisely where the potential for confusion arises. For instance, when a legal document states, “Should the lessee fail to pay rent, the lease will be terminated,” the sentence straddles advice and conditionality. Is the text merely advising the lessee on the consequences of non-payment, or is it establishing a conditional framework where lease termination is contingent upon the failure to pay rent? The ambiguity inherent in this construction might lead to differing interpretations, a scenario that legal practitioners are keen to avoid.

The example provided illustrates this ambiguity starkly. The use of “should” might suggest a softer, more advisory tone, potentially diminishing the perceived immediacy or inevitability of the lease termination. Conversely, replacing “should” with “if” transforms the sentence into a clear, unequivocal statement of condition and consequence. “If the lessee fails to pay rent, the lease will be terminated” leaves no room for interpretation regarding the relationship between non-payment and lease termination. This clarity is paramount in legal settings, where the precise understanding of rights, duties, and consequences can significantly impact the parties involved.

In conclusion, while “should” has its place in offering advice and outlining obligations, its use in conditional clauses within legal texts is fraught with the potential for ambiguity. This ambiguity is not a mere academic concern but a practical issue that can affect the interpretation and enforcement of legal agreements. As such, legal professionals are urged to scrutinize their use of “should” in such contexts and to consider clearer, more direct alternatives that leave no doubt as to their intended meaning. The shift towards such alternatives is not just about adhering to legal formalities; it is about ensuring that the law is communicated with the utmost clarity, thereby upholding the principles of justice and fairness that underpin the legal profession.