Enough Is Enough: Shorten Your Legal Writing Or Face Killer Robots!

Few lawyers—as a guess—were English Language majors during their undergraduate degree program. If they were, what could explain the superfluous legalese in every contract, disclaimer, and complaint these days?

Blame it on our litigious society, insufficient education system, or lacking law school training; but it remains true that legal professionals have become obsessed with length.

E-mails are now long letters (with attachments). Legal briefs—ironically—rival graduate school dissertations. Even your phone bill and mobile contract come with a mile-long explanation of terms and agreements that no individual has the time to read or ability to understand.

Today, lawyers learn to ignore internally circulated memorandums. After all, who foots the bill for the hour it takes to read one?

Social media dared to challenge this trend. Twitter gained notoriety due to the fact that men and women were forced to write no more than 140 characters worth of information. But, instead of creating more concise phrases, people turned to abbreviations and short-form.

In general, when people actually adhere to page requirements, it’s not because they are masters of language. No, instead, these people are masters of Microsoft—manipulating margins and font size and formatting.

What has happened to brevity in law and life?

“Some view it as a scandal that the CEO of J.P. Morgan ‘knew’ about the risky trades long ago. Or that the Bush administration knew ‘Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.‘. Or that the average cell phone customer can know when they’re roaming, and yet still be surprised by the data charges from vacation, whether it’s $100 to upload a photo to Facebook, or $62,000 for downloading Wall-E,” writes David Silverman for the HBR Blog.

“What is rarely mentioned is the amount of information that lands on the desk of a CEO or a President, or every single one of us, every day.”

Is oversaturation of information to blame for the recession or the impending demise of America?

Maybe college essays are ruining our economy. At least, that’s what Mr. Silverman, a business writing professor and author of Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars, leads us to believe.

Professor Silverman tasked one of his classes to write a daily 500-word blog post. Maximum, 500 words, no more. If students could muster less, without sacrificing the profundity of the subject matter, the better.

Yet, Professor Silverman claims almost no student could adhere to the 500-word maximum requirement.

It comes down to laziness. Shortening a writing piece is more difficult and often more time consuming than leaving a first draft.

In the field of law, many professionals worry that they’ll leave out crucial information. They believe repetition often drives home a point.

Not only is this assumption untrue, it’s also dangerous to your clients.

Consider a recent court case in Washington State. The title of the lawsuit was eight pages long. The entire lawsuit spanned 465 pages. According to the Seattle Times, the presiding judge noted that the lawsuit “consists of largely useless repetition.” In contrast to the complaint, the judge’s conclusion was an extremely pleasant read:

“Plaintiff has a great deal to say,

But it seems he skipped Rule 8(a).

His Complaint is too long,

Which renders it wrong,

Please re-write and re-file today.”

There have been numerous, similar instances where judges (although less lyrical) are equally un-amused by rambling legalese.

So what is the solution?

Professor Silverman suggests within education: “Require a class in headline writing for all students in high school and college. Give them A+ marks for turning this:

In today’s turbulent times, it is more important than ever to remember that we are living in a world that, currently, is now more difficult to live in, and that we should be exercising extreme caution because of the evolution and advancement of artificial intelligence combined with mechanical apparatus that provides a method and capability for these new beings created in laboratories around the world to develop their own impulses, agendas and goal states, which, we have been lead to believe by reliable experts and a variety of eyewitness accounts, have already evolved via a combined intelligence network and communications subsystem into semi-sentient destroyers of life, liberty and happiness.

Into this:

Killer Robots!”

In turn, law school managers—like any adept English professor—should do the same for first-year associate training. Teach young attorneys the value of a single word.

When assigning real-world cases, establish a maximum word or page count. It will help law firm professionals write more efficiently. Deliberation on word length will also lead to more in-depth consideration of the legal arguments.

Administrators should lead the firm by example. Forget sprawling e-mails and mass memorandums. Write your training manuals as you would a legal brief—and make them brief.

It may take a bit more time, but all correspondence should be followed with due reflection. The most persuasive writing is frequently the most succinct.

-WB

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