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Simple Legal Writing Isn’t Baby-Talk

seminar-photoLast 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.”

In Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please, Professor Joseph Kimble calls this type of criticism the first myth of plain English:

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.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/moonboots/139356235/)

  • Joe Henderson May 1, 2013, 4:25 pm

    Well put, Matt. Too many lawyers act as though it’s a privilege for clients to come crawling to them to allow them espouse genius at top dollar. But the superior lawyers figure out how to reach their clients where they find them. It shouldn’t take a degree in the classics to figure out what your lawyer is saying. This failure to think about how to communicate with clients is also analogized in many lawyers’ refusal to adopt technology to more efficiently and conveniently serve clients. Too many seem to believe that big, confusing words and luddite practices are badges of honor for the erudite. As we continue to see less legal work for more lawyers, adapt or die seems an appropriate instruction.

  • Victoria Filippov May 2, 2013, 10:15 am

    Matt, I could not agree more with your columns. Too often lawyers use big words in their pleadings and correspondence, diluting the intended message of the document. A lawyer’s job is speak on behalf of a client in an effective manner. Simple plain English write-what-you-know dictum is the only appropriate form of legal writing. It communicates the issues without complications and prevents any potential misunderstanding. I wish more lawyers would try writing like Hemingway and speaking like Churchill.


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