Professionals, like doctors, often speak using medical jargon. Other doctors understand it, but not necessarily everyone else. This is true for anyone who uses technical language specific to their work. But in a legal matter, communication is critical. A good reason to use plain English, isn’t it? -CCE
Are longer briefs more persuasive? Is it a legal writing faux pas to start a sentence with “and”? Do judges care if you follow Bluebook citation format? Judge Lebovits has some thoughts on these and other legal writing myths to share, some of which may surprise you. -CCE
Joseph Kimble has long been recognized as one of the top legal writing scholars. In this Plain English column of the Michigan Bar Journal (every Bar Journal should have one!), Professor Kimble offers evidence once again that readers, including judges, prefer plain language and why. -CCE
To help round out this plain-English theme issue of the Bar Journal, I offer the evidence of four studies. These four are among 50 that I collect and summarize in my book Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government, and Law. Of the 50 studies, 18 involved different kinds of legal documents—lawsuit papers, judicial opinions, statutes, regulations, jury instructions, court forms and notices, and contracts. And they included readers of all sorts—judges, lawyers, administrators, and the general public. The evidence is overwhelming: readers strongly prefer plain language to legalese, understand it better and faster, are more likely to comply with it, and are more likely to read it to begin with. —JK
Curiouser and Curiouser Excuses for Legal Jargon, by Chadwick C. Busk & Michael Braem, 95 Plain Language, Mich. B.J. 30 (2016)
Earlier today, I posted about the use of Latin for legal terms of art, although legal writing scholars usually advise against using them. This article addresses that very subject. -CCE
I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and I don’t believe you do either.” —Eaglet, Alice in Wonderland (1865), Chapter III
“Some lawyers and academicians attempt to justify legal jargon and “traditional” legal writing—legal writing that’s ‘wordy, unclear, pompous, dull1’ and even “wretched.’2 But legal jargon in contracts burdens all those who must deal with it: the parties to the agreement who try to understand it, lawyers who mistakenly think they must use it, and judges who have to interpret it. Legal jargon often creates ambiguity, and ambiguity invites litigation. Many legalisms have been fodder for courts to puzzle over, including herein, therein, hereby, and thereof; shall; and/or; and best efforts.
However, some academicians, most recently Professor Lori Johnson of the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law, have modernized old excuses for legal jargon and concocted new ones. Can these arguments withstand a reasoned analysis, or are they merely fanciful declarations from Wonderland?
The author has a well-known new client with an unusual request – write the worst briefs possible. The author offers eight rules to as guidelines to fulfill his client’s wish. This will be interesting! And, because it comes from the Michigan Bar Journal’s Plain English Committee, you know it’s going to be good. -CCE
That’s right— he wants us to write terrible briefs. This surprised me too at first, but then he explained his new litigation strategy: suspecting that it might be more effective to ruin judicial minds than to manipulate them in his favor, he wants to use terrible writing to drive appellate judges totally insane. Writing a bad brief is easy enough, but writing a truly disastrous one—one capable of inducing madness—is a task requiring deliberate effort and careful study. Our greatest challenge may be a lack of helpful reference materials, for although there are several good books on the art of writing well, the craft of writing badly has been suppressed and maligned for far too long. In the hope of invigorating the persecuted art of infuriating prose, I offer this letter. It’s a meager beginning, but if you follow these eight rules to the best of your ability, your writing should be sufficiently misguided and maddening to serve our client well.
Is plain language foreign to ‘real’ writers? To the pros, I mean? Would professional writers, editors, and literary agents outside our field scoff at the plain style that this column has long endorsed? Would plain English draw ridicule in those quarters? Too childish? Dumbed down? Illiterate? And would readers of literate magazines, technical journals, or fiction balk at the simplicity, the directness?
The Pleading, by Mark Cooney, Plain Language, 94 Mich. B.J. 3, 42 (March 2015)
Another article from the Plain English Subcommittee of the Michigan Bar Journal. As always, each article makes a case for using plain English in legal writing. This group has been, and remains, a strong proponent for elegant legal writing without legalese.
This selection is a clever take off Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Raven, that cautions the reader against writing pleadings with stuffy, archaic language. Its author, editor in chief of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing and author of Sketches on Legal Style, Mark Cooney, is a legal writing professor at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. -CCE
Once upon a docket dreary, as I pondered
Over many a curious case then pending
with the busy court,
While I read, attention sapping, suddenly
there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at
my chambers door.
‘Tis my clerk again,’ I grumbled, ‘tapping
on my chambers door—
Oh, yet another matter more.’
Pausing just a moment further, bracing
for the fresh-faced fervor,
Up I turned my heavy head to bid my
clerk in through the door.
In he stepped with youthful stride,
brand-new filing at his side,
Still another motion coming briskly
through my chambers door—
A docket full and motions more, another
through my chambers door—
Coming through my chambers door. . . .
Dear Mrs. Finklebean,
I was a student in your fourth-grade class
way back, jeez, almost 30 years ago—long
before my silk-stocking days as a partner at
a prestigious law firm. If I stand out in your
memory, it’s probably because of my regrettable
decision to put a wriggling gob of earthworms
into your coat pocket after recess
one day. I swear it wasn’t my idea; Butch
Dugan threatened to give me an atomic
wedgie unless I did it. Once again, I’m truly
sorry for that little stunt.
But I haven’t written you after all these
years to renew my childhood apologies, Mrs.
Finklebean. In fact, if I may be so bold, I’ve
written because you owe me an apology—
one that’s long overdue. Let me explain. . . .
Judge Hughes eliminates unnecessary words, what he calls “the fluff.” In a simple, direct example, Judge Hughes clearly marks which words are meaningless, useless fillers.
You see this language used every day by lawyers and legal professionals. It is common as dirt. Some writers insist that archaic legalese is “required,” although there is no court rule, case law, or statute to support that opinion. It is not a “legal term of art.”
The point of legal writing is to persuade the reader – the court. Why do we add “the fluff”? Beats me. -CCE
(‘‘Plain Language’’ is a regular feature of the Michigan Bar Journal, edited by Joseph Kimble for the Plain English Subcommittee of the Publications and Website Advisory Committee. We seek to improve the clarity of legal writing and the public opinion of lawyers by eliminating legalese. Want to contribute a plain-English article? Contact Prof. Kimble at Thomas Cooley Law School, P.O. Box 13038, Lansing, MI 48901. For information about the Plain English Committee, see our website—http://www.michbar.org/generalinfo/plainenglish/home.cfm.)
Lawyers are notoriously poor at gauging what judges prefer in legal writing. Too many of us believe, for example, that judges expect us to use legalese. In 1991, when the Texas Plain-Language Committee surveyed all the state district and appellate judges in Texas, we found that more than 80 percent prefer plain language (Plaintiff complains of Defendant and says) over legalese (Now comes the Plaintiff, by and through his attorneys of record, Darrow and Holmes, and for his Original Petition in this cause would respectfully show unto the Court the following). Indeed, several judges responded to the survey with a plea that we stamp out legalese once and for all. . . .
In this post, I had planned to focus on only one article from the Michigan Bar Journal’s Plain Language Committee — “After Seven Centuries, the True Meaning of SS,” by Thomas Selden Edgerton. But, after seeing the quality of the other articles, I could not choose just one. So, here you will also find:
The 2012 Revocation of Paternity Act, by Audra McClure;
A Sound Record Retention Policy: A Matter of Self-Preservation, by Michael J. Sullivan and JoAnn L. Hathaway;
A Spiritual Focus Can Strengthen Wellness, by Molly Dean; and
Book Review: Appellate Practice Compendium, reviewed by Phillip J. DeRosier.