Lawyers, don’t wear belts and suspenders

Fortunately, most lawyers do not commit this fashion mistake—at least not in the way we dress. Many lawyers make this mistake, however, when it comes to writing.

How many times have you seen something like this:

Enclosed please find one (1) original and three (3) copies of the…

Too often, I’ll bet. Almost every lawyer does it, even though it is entirely unnecessary and, well, Bozo-the-Clown-silly. This belt-and-suspenders approach may have arisen when much of the population could not read but could recognize numbers. Well-respected legal writing expert Bryan Garner suspects that this practice grew out of a fear of typographical errors. Today, lawyers do this all the time for one simple yet groundless reason: it’s always done this way.

No matter what its origins, we ought to stamp this practice out for good. Today, there’s no reason to write out a number followed by the corresponding numerals in parenthesis. It is highly unlikely that someone will mistake your “ten” for a “one.” Even the most clumsy typist is not likely to type “two” instead of “ten.” If dropping this repetitive motif will cause you to lose sleep, break out in hives, and perhaps wet the bed, then for Pete’s sake please limit the practice to formal legal documents such as deeds or contracts. As Garner points out in his Dictionary of Legal Usage, no one wants to receive a letter that says, “Please give my regards to your two (2) children.” If you do this sort of thing in your cover letters or even informal, personal correspondence, people are liable to think you are a prat.

Here are my rules when it comes to numbers in a document:

  • Never start a sentence with a numeral. Spell out the number instead: “Four score and seven years ago…” rather than “4 score and 7 years ago…”
  • Smaller numbers can be written out if they appear anywhere but at the start of a sentence: two, ten, sixteen, etc.
  • Any number greater than twenty should probably appear in numerals: “22” rather than “twenty-two.” It has to do with ease of reading, and the line drawn at twenty is admittedly arbitrary.
  • Unless you’re writing out a check, there’s no need to write “One Thousand, Seven Hundred and 52/100 Dollars” in a document. Just write “$1,700.52.” It’s easier to type and easier to read.

There are probably more rules I could suggest, but following these and getting rid of those ridiculous redundancies like “ten (10)” will go a long way to making your writing more readable. Your readers will appreciate it.


Legalese and other words to banish

It’s Friday, so I figured a slightly snarky post of language pet peeves might be in order.

“…and, also a new CD will be released…”

I heard that on a satellite radio station this week, and it bugged me. One of those two options was more than adequate, yet the redundancy “and also” is frequently used. Knock it off. We wouldn’t say “and and” or “also also,” so why “and also”?

Another word for lawyers and judges to get rid of: enjoin (as well as its various forms such as “enjoined”). Other than those who speak legalese, does anyone use this word? We see it often in court orders: “The parties are enjoined from…” If you are one of the parties, do you know what it means? If not, how can you comply with the order? What’s wrong with the word prohibit? Everyone knows what “prohibit” means, so why not just use it instead of “enjoin”? Parties will understand it, and no one will feel like the lawyers and judges are talking down to them.

Comes now This has driven me crazy since day one of my law practice. “Comes now the plaintiff, by John Lousywriter, and moves this Honorable Court to enter an order…” How about a nice simple “Plaintiff requests the Court to enter an order”? (But not one enjoining anything!)

Purported This word must be used carefully. We often use it as a synonym for “alleged” or “claimed.” Purported means those things, but with a degree of skepticism. You might write, “The alleged burglar was actually in Sacramento on the date of the crime.” It might be stronger to say “The purported burglar was actually in Sacramento when the crime occurred.” Still, “purported” is one of those words that only lawyers use. Bah. Get rid of it.

Why should we get rid of these words and other legalese? I think the answer is simple. We lawyers have all seen pro se parties fill their pleadings with various bits of legalese, often to an unfortunate degree. It’s almost as if the person feels they have to say the right magic word. Really, we know deep inside that simpler is better. Would anyone rather read Faulkner’s stream of consciousness over Hemingway’s short sentences?

There’s one more reason to get rid of legalese. When legalese is used, it looks as though the lawyer is hoping the over-formality of the writing will be persuasive. Sadly, it never works, and the reader can see right through it. The old adage, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullsh**” doesn’t work in legal writing.