Why improve your legal writing?

“To be clear is to be efficient; to be obscure is to be inefficient. Your style . . . is to be judged not by literary conventions or grammatical niceties but by whether it carries out efficiently the job you are paid to do.”

As the author of the 500 Word Contract™,  I have researched and learnt a considerable amount about the use of simple, clear and concise language – otherwise known as plain language.

Clients want plain language from their lawyers. In South Africa and some US states, legislation has been introduced to make plain language a requirement, at least when dealing with consumers. But many lawyers do not have these skills. It has been said:

  • “In a league table of clear writing style, lawyers would be in the relegation zone… The legal profession has a bad reputation when it comes to using the written word. Long and convoluted sentences, archaic expressions, wordy phrases, clauses within clauses, complex words and abstract and vague drafting are the hallmarks of typical legal documents.” (link)
  • “Writing like a lawyer is the problem. Think like a lawyer, but write like a warm, logical, intelligent, fair-minded human.” (top#25 in link)
  • “We lawyers will forfeit our voice in the collective conversation—and much of our influence—if we don’t learn to communicate more clearly.” (link)

Bad Language from Lawyers

Bryan A Garner, an authority on plain language for lawyers, sets out the issues in this article:

  • lawyers cannot recognise that they are not skilled in writing (he points out that Malcolm Gladwell proposed it takes 10,000 hours to become great at a skill, and many lawyers are definitely lacking that degree of expertise);
  • those who draft documents, known as transactional lawyers in the US, tend to be even worse than litigators – possibly because judges have never torn their pleadings to shreds;
  • bad writing is more common among those who have recently qualified. Interestingly though, a review of drafters at Denton Wilde Sapte showed that: “There was no noticeable difference based on seniority—partners were scarcely better at writing than their junior colleagues.

Notes: The quote is from Plain Words by Ernest and Rebecca Gowers. Bryan A Garner is a lawyer and lexicographer, and author of Garner’s Modern American Usage and Elements of Legal Style.

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