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December 17, 2005

Writing For Clients--Just Say It-Part 3

For me, the greatest single wedge driven between clients and lawyers is "legal" writing. In response to this blawg's December 14 post Writing For Clients--Just Say It-Part 2...Can We Start With Courts?, Patrick Lamb at In Search Of Perfect Client Service made a good comment. He brought me to my senses when he said: "writing is writing." So, Pat suggests to me, why make a distinction between writing for clients and courts or anyone? Good writing is good writing.

My first instinct was to respond to Pat that the profession isn't ready for a 100% sane, simple, unpretentious new folkway in writing. Bit by bit is better. For instance, Pennsylvania in particular has some archaic if charming terms floating around: lots of "whereupon/hereinafter"-type words (as in other jurisdictions), "tipstaff" (deputy or bailiff), "true and correct copy", "respectfully submitted/Honorable Court" and the usual obsequious expressions used lavishly, and referring to each other as "Attorney" Jones and "Attorney" Smith.

California, Maryland and DC also have some old jargon. When I do state court work, usually in Pennsylvania or Maryland, I balk at these terms--but I still use some of them. If I really think about it, the one I won't ever use is "COMES NOW". So I have been doing my part piece by piece--by either outright chucking or replacing these phrases and practices with saner stuff--but not nearly enough so.

Doesn't changing legal writing to just clear and simple writing come down to to leadership? Maybe I should start setting a better example. Why not buck the traditions 100%--whether it's writing to courts, to clients or to other lawyers--and never use those expressions again? Ever.

And Just Say It?

Posted by JD Hull at December 17, 2005 11:20 AM


Thanks for mentioning my comment. I would bet that your pleadings contain substantially less legalese than you allude to. But I applaud the movement to challenge useless verbiage to some courts thrive on. I posted on this to further the dialogue. http://patricklamb.typepad.com/perfectservice/2005/12/good_writing_br.html
I hope your posts on good writing spurs a movement!

Posted by: Patrick Lamb at December 17, 2005 05:31 PM

Here's my question: what purpose do these "archaic if charming terms" serve? Does either "whereupon" or "hereinafter" have some special meaning within the legal profession? Are these terms a special soft of "shorthand" used to express a large idea in a few syllables?

Or is much of it merely bloviation?

Posted by: Roy Jacobsen at December 20, 2005 10:53 AM

By saying "archaic but charming" I was being charitable and trying not to offend Pennsylvania lawyers.

Usually, Roy, I think jargon serves no purpose. But even when jargon does provide a shorter way to say something, the fact that the old jargon alienates clients, non-lawyers and the general public--not to mention contributes to the image and reality of lawyer "clubiness"--is enough to support chucking jargon entirely.

Posted by: Dan Hull at December 20, 2005 11:51 AM

It's bloviation then.

I agree about the alienation you mention. The thing about jargon, if it's actually serving its purpose (conveying dense meaning in a few syllables), is that it's only useful when used between "consenting adults," that is, between those people who know what it actually means. Thus, two lawyers talking shop can and probably should use specialized legal terms with each other, and no harm done.

The problem comes when they don't shift mental gears when non-lawyers are in the mix, and they go on tossing out those lovely bits of legalese.

I was a witness to a traffic accident that ended up in court. (Nobody was hurt, but one party didn't like the insurance settlement offered by the other party, so it went to court. Stupid case, if you ask me, but that's not the point.) At one point, the lawyer for the defense asked me how fast I thought car A was going, and before I could answer, the plaintiff's lawyer interrupted, saying something to the judge about "voir dire." I have since learned what that term means, but I was left floundering for a moment while the judge and the lawyers sorted it out. Granted, this wasn't about me, but it would have been nice for them to have used some plain English terms to let everyone else in the courtroom know what was going on.

Posted by: Roy Jacobsen at December 20, 2005 03:16 PM

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