Lawyers, get rid of the extra junk in your documents

One of my colleagues this week asked me to review a draft of a complaint, and it inspired me to write about some silly habits we lawyers have. It is common practice for lawyers and judges to do things that are unnecessary, and in some cases even insult our readers. Let me offer a couple of examples:

  • When we refer to an agency or company that can be abbreviated, we will write something like Apple, Inc. (“Apple”), or South Bend Community School Corporation (“SBCSC”), or John Hancock (“Hancock”), or even worse William Wilson (hereinafter “Mr. Wilson”). There’s no reason at all to do this in 99% of all cases. It is almost as though we do not trust our reading audience to figure out who Apple or Mr. Wilson refers to. The idea here is that we do not want our audience to be confused, but unless there’s a real danger of confusion, we shouldn’t assume our audience isn’t bright enough to realize who we mean when we write “Mr. Wilson.” Even when there are two Wilsons, like in a divorce case, a judge is smart enough to realize that Mr. Wilson is the husband and Ms. Wilson is the wife.
  • When we use numbers, it is common to say “One (1)” or “Three Hundred and No/100 Dollars ($300.00).” In days of yore when literacy rates were rather low, using this belt-and-suspenders approach made sense. A person might not know how to read a word like “ninety,” but he could understand “90.” Today, it’s much better to simply use one or the other because the reader’s eye is not interrupted by the redundancy. (Admit it—the last time you saw something like “Three million, eight hundred seventy-six thousand, four hundred eighty” your eyes skipped ahead to the 4,876,480.)

Comedians and commentators like to make fun of “legalese” or “charging by the word,” which is nothing more than a way of showing disrespect for lawyers. Why are we helping to reinforce this negative reputation? By getting rid of the useless junk, our documents will have less legalese and be friendlier for our audience. Using the right word is important, of course, but there’s no reason to make a document harder to read simply because “we’ve always done it that way.”

My guess is that many lawyers will feel a great deal of angst over removing this clutter from documents. There’s no need. I have been writing this way for years, and not once has a judge or another lawyer complained that they were confused because I didn’t explain who “Principal Robert Jones (Principal)” was. Don’t take my word for it: no less an authority than Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner have called for lawyers to get rid of the excess acronyms and the like. See Making Your Case The Art of Persuading Judges by Scalia and Garner (2008).

(I suspect that on the issue of numbers, many lawyers will argue that the “two (2)” approach helps avoid typographical errors like “one (10).” Fair enough—but when you proofread the document to make sure the right number is there, you can instruct your assistant to delete the redundant reference for the final version. Use the belt-and-suspenders approach for drafts, but make your final document look like the professional document it should be. If you’re not proofreading your documents, you have larger worries than whether that 1 should be 10.)

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