Nadine Catto used to work as a divorce lawyer, and now edits legal materials for publishers and other legal content providers. In this article she describes how she got into legal editing, and what her work typically involves.
My path to legal editing
When I was at school, I was told that the best career for someone who loved words was a lawyer. Although I had some niggling doubts, it seemed like a good idea at the time and I excitedly started my career as a divorce lawyer. For someone who hates confrontation, this may not have been the smartest career choice. While others loved the rough and tumble of the courtroom, I wished everyone would just stop arguing and I could curl up in the corner with a book!
My wish came true (sort of) when a conversation in a creative writing class led to some work experience with a publisher. Books, words, more books – I loved it! I saw an advert for a job as an assistant editor for a legal publisher who was looking for someone with a legal background. We made the perfect match! Fast forward eight years and two children later and freelance work beckoned.
A typical day
- School run and answering my twins’ endless questions, followed by a morning walk by the river to shift from Mum-mode to editor-mode.
- Check I’ve received the batch of articles from the legal content provider.
- Prioritise article work for the week according to the editorial manager’s schedule.
- Several hours of focused copyediting and rewriting articles on international law, and trying to stop the cat from jumping on the keyboard and deleting all my work!
- Afternoon school run and more questions from the twins. Put finishing touches to the day’s articles and write a summary of the articles.
- Send the articles back to the editorial manager and feel happy that they are now in house style and easier to understand for the busy legal professional.
This is just an example of a typical day. But my working week could be proofreading a 3,000-page legal reference book (this took longer than a week!), copyediting how-to guides for corporate lawyers or copywriting articles for a DIY legal publisher. For me, it’s the variety that makes freelance work a joy.
I’ve been fortunate to have quite a steady flow of work since I went freelance, and I work part-time to fit in with the school day. But in order to make this work, I do often work at weekends and in the evenings to free up more time during the working week to fit in family commitments.
Legal editing tasks
When I receive an article from the editorial manager, the first thing I do is format it according to their requested house style. I re-style the headings and change footnotes to endnotes. The articles can be from anywhere in the world on any area of commercial or corporate law. So, I also check which language it’s set to – it could be US English, Peruvian, Spanish or any other language! I set it to the client’s preferred language, which is often British English, and run a spellcheck. Some style issues that I always have to be aware of are case names, citations, the names of judiciary, legal terminology and the names of courts. I usually have a long house style to work with, so I make sure that I’m really familiar with it, and I go back to the editorial manager with anything that the style guide doesn’t cover.
I then read through the article to get a sense of what it’s about – perhaps making a few small corrections as I go. This can also involve quite a lot of head-scratching about what the author is trying to say under layers of legalese! I try to ensure that the article is in plain English; however, with legal writing, it is sometimes important to keep certain terms of art, so it’s a fine balance. Rather than wading in with corrections that could potentially change the author’s meaning, I make suggestions about rewording and write very diplomatic queries.
The end goal is to produce an article with a clear message that’s easy for a busy legal professional to understand quickly. Sometimes I do a bit of legal research to understand the subject so that I can make better suggestions for rewording. Lastly, I write a summary of the article – something that will entice a reader to read it (not always easy to make the law sound enticing, but I try).
If I’m copyediting, I work in Word using Track Changes. If I’m proofreading, I work in Adobe Acrobat using the comment tools.
Marketing and professional development
It can be difficult to fit in marketing, and it’s something that I do struggle with. I know I should be promoting myself, but it’s always the last thing on my to-do list. I try to make time in the week to attend a networking group, investigate new opportunities and send my CV to other legal publishers or law firms. We’re lucky in the CIEP to have the legal editing special interest group (SIG). This is a newly created SIG, and I hope it will be a great place to learn from each other and share concerns and queries.
The joys (yes, really!) of legal editing
Yes, law can be a dry subject, but I’ve learned so much about different areas of law and it’s so interesting to see how different jurisdictions deal with similar issues. The biggest joy for me is to take a manuscript filled with dense legalese and tease out the meaning to improve the readability. I was once that busy lawyer with little time for professional development, so it’s great to know that I’m helping them out. Plus, I’ve worked for some genuinely lovely clients and that’s a real bonus.
Nadine Catto edits and proofreads articles, how-to guides and books for legal content providers and publishers. Nadine is a qualified lawyer who worked in-house for a legal publisher for eight years. Nadine is an advocate for plain English in legal writing, and is a Professional Member of the CIEP.
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.
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Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.