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Plagiarizing With Honor: The Copy and Paste Craze in Legal Writing

December 20, 2011

Generally, the same rules against plagiarism apply in legal writing as in all writing. In drafting certain kinds of documents, however, an efficient lawyer will often borrow even entire paragraphs from other documents if their argument is the same as was made in the source paper, or if a certain provision would benefit their client. Documents in which it is acceptable to use copied text include:

  • Briefs;
  • Contracts;
  • Motions;
  • Demand letters; and
  • Wills.

In documents such as legal articles, however, copying text amounts to plagiarism and is unacceptable. The critical question is whether the reader is meant to believe that you are presenting original thoughts. If so, then anything more than a few words needs to be quoted and properly attributed with a citation.

In pleadings where extensive copying is acceptable, you will still want to watch out for copying from court decisions too liberally. While it may make sense to use the same analysis as was used in a decision, if you are going to take entire sentences without modifying the language, you should cite the source.

For multiple sentences, you should use an indented paragraph. Depending on the circumstances, though, you may want to rephrase so that you don’t have to use an indented paragraph, as some people skip over them. Copying liberally from court decisions may not be plagiarism exactly, but if someone recognizes the source, they may perceive you as less professional than if you were to use a proper attribution.

Solo and small firm attorneys should contact me by email or phone at 608-620-3529 to schedule a free consultation.

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