I don't enjoy reading legalese, so when I found Wayne Schiess' article, "Legal Writing Isn't What It Should Be," in the Fall 2008 MIE Journal, I was intrigued. Perhaps Schiess, the Director of Legal Writing at the University of Texas, could tell me why lawyers cling to such confusing language. (A note--for those who don't subscribe to the MIE Journal, you can find posts on Schiess' UT website that cover similar topics.) The article does explain some of the reasons why lawyers write like they do, and I now understand more about what causes them to develop their bad habits. However, reading the article convinced me that public interest lawyers need to kick these habits and write plainly all of the time, not just when they are drafting client legal education materials. Two of the quotes that Schiess used in his article made this point clear to me.
We cannot in justice to our job expect the client to employ us to interpret our own documents nor should we require him to consult our professional brethren for this purpose. -Sidney F. Parham, Jr., The Fundamentals of Legal Writing 72 (Michie Co. 1967).
If the clients can read the contract more easily and resolve contract questions themselves, doesn't that mean fewer billable hours for the lawyer? My experience is that clients--on both sides of the negotiation--respect the lawyer's ability to express ideas clearly. When they see good writing, they are less likely to try to do it themselves. While most business people can fake "legalese," writing in plain English takes practice. It takes real talent to express complicated legal, technical, financial, and commercial ideas in a straightforward way. -David T. Daly, Why Bother to Write Contracts in Plain English?, 78 Michigan Bar Journal 850 (1999).
Interested in learning how to write plainly? Check out these resources.
Whether you're a lawyer or not, I'd encourage you to try to write plainly. I know that it isn't easy, and, at least at first, it takes more time. But by expending a little effort, your writing style overall will improve. Two tips for how to get started and not become overwhelmed:
- Focus on one thing at a time. Start with a simple concept, like using bullet points for lists or avoiding Latin words, and once it has become second nature, add a few more.
- Find an editor. For me, feedback from others has been key to improving my writing. Often, another person can help me see what I've missed. (You know--like the person who sees instantly where the puzzle piece that you've been staring at forever goes.)
So try it. What do you have to lose? Perhaps it will save your writing from being one of Schiess' examples. - K