Last week at Lawyerist I republished my April Minnesota Lawyer column titled Use 5-Cent Words for 10-Dollar Ideas. The column expanded on a previous Lawyerist column I wrote called Simple Legal Writing a Newfangled Idea? Hardly.
Both columns point out that legal writing in plain English isn’t something that Bryan Garner dreamed up in law school and decided to foist on the legal profession. To the contrary, for hundreds of years writers have produced great works by writing simply, plainly, and directly.
Despite its impressive pedigree, however, some critics still charge that plain English is uneducated baby-talk unfit for the practice of law. Plain-language critic Jack Stark, for example, has called plain-English writing “dumb-downed.”
Plain English is the style of Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain, and Justice Holmes, and George Orwell, and Winston Churchill, and E.B. White. Plain words are eternally fresh and fit. More than that, they are capable of great power and dignity . . . .
Why would we ever think that a profusion of fancy-sounding words in any way equates with wit, wisdom, depth, vitality, importance, usefulness, or reliability? How can we be so blind or indifferent to the manifold failings of legal and official style — in all their clotted, confounding verbosity?
As Kimble points out,”[a]nyone can complicate matters; it’s much harder to simplify without oversimplifying, and only the best minds and best writers can hit the mark.”
Sophisticated clients and judges know all too well that the gibberish being produced by the legal profession today isn’t written in plain English. No, the gibberish is being produced by novices who for whatever reason haven’t evolved beyond copying the convoluted, archaic writing style found in law-school casebooks.
So I’ll continue to cast my lot with Lincoln, Whitman, Twain, Hemingway, Thoreau, Justice Holmes, Justice Robert H. Jackson, Orwell, Churchill, White, and Ayn Rand. Only a Faulkner wannabee would describe their prose style as baby-talk. And history, of course, has treated them just fine.