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Spell Check Needs a Fail Check

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Lawyers are generally credited with being good writers, but a number of attorneys are lousy spellers.

Every email and word processing program around may offer a spell check, but unquestioning reliance on spell check can lead to even more embarrassing mistakes. It's not just auto correct failures that can cause trouble. Attorneys can sabotage themselves by accepting spell check changes without proofreading the final, corrected work product.

Years ago, I worked with a lawyer who freely admitted that she couldn't spell to save her life. While in school, she ran spell check on her assignments and clicked "Change" and "Change All" with reckless abandon. That practice carried over to her first law job: In house counsel at a small company.

If you've ever run spell check in a document with legal terms, you can guess that such a practice can produce unfortunate results. Res judicata becomes res judicator. Pro hac vice? Microsoft Word suggests pro hack vice. (Sidebar: Never give a judge -- or opposing counsel -- grounds to write you off as a hack.)

Legal terms, however, aren't the only words that spell check can misunderstand.

The young attorney in this cautionary tale once attempted to apologize to a client via email for an unexpected delay in delivering a document. At the close of her message, she politely wrote, "I apologize if this causes you any inconvenience."

Except she misspelled "inconvenience."

Her email spell checker caught the error, and she accepted the suggested change without looking at the change. So instead of apologizing for a possible inconvenience, she told her client, "I apologize if this causes you any incontinence."

Granted, the substituted word could work in the context of the message, but it's simply not something that should be highlighted in professional correspondence.

Solo and small law attorneys don't enjoy the same level of oversight as BigLaw associates. In the small law world, you may not have anyone to proofread your work before you submit it to the court. If you know that spelling is not your strong suit, don't rely exclusively on spell check to save you from yourself. Proofread your work before submitting it to avoid spelling errors that may cause you incontinence inconvenience.

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