Why Law Firms That Take Grammar Seriously Succeed

Although attributed to Will Rogers, the following quote—at one point or another—has been uttered by most Americans:

“The minute you read something that you can’t understand, you can almost be sure it was drawn up by a lawyer.”

At times, legal jargon must be sensitive and all-inclusive to protect your corporate clients, which means it’s incomprehensible by laymen. To avoid lawsuits, disclaimers have become rife with legalese and incomprehensible verbiage.

As a result, lesson one in law school is that not all words are created equal. In fact, the Glossary of Terms within a legal document is frequently the longest portion of the entire brief.

This is why law firm professionals must possess a knack for precision in wording before they can be trusted with writing any legally-binding work. Attorneys are quick to practice proper citation and quotation methods when publishing law review articles.

Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to grammar. She’s a stickler for punctuation—although not for exaggeration—believing that people who mix up their itses “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”

Kyle Wiens will not hire people who use poor grammar for a position within his companies, iFixit or Dozuki. Moreover, Wiens ensures his computer programmers know the difference between “to” and “too” during a mandatory grammar test that is given to each employee prior to starting work.

“If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with,” explains Wiens in the Harvard Business Review Blog.

“So, even in this hyper-competitive market, I will pass on a great programmer who cannot write.”

Some might consider this zero tolerance policy to be harsh. But, Wiens thinks good grammar makes for good business. He claims writing code is not unlike writing prose. And, the best employees at his computer companies have a proven track record for attention to detail.

“I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing—like stocking shelves or labeling parts.”

Law firms, too, benefit from a zero tolerance policy when it comes to grammar. It turns out, bad legal writing can have a detrimental impact on a case.

For example, a bankruptcy lawyer in Minnesota was publicly reprimanded for unprofessional conduct and ordered to pay court costs after he repeatedly filed documents that the court deemed “unintelligible,” due to a copious amount of spelling and typographical errors, reports Paralegal Today.

“In Duncan v. AT & T Communications, Inc., 668 F. Supp. 232 (1987), the defendant’s motion to dismiss was granted for several reasons, including poor organization. The court’s opinion stated: ‘A complaint may be so poorly composed as to be functionally illegible. This is not to say that a complaint needs to resemble a winning entry in an essay contest,’ Paralegal Today also cites.

There are a myriad of similar examples in law, where judges are swayed by the sloppy phraseology of a motion. Certainly, condemning legalese is not a new argument.

However, law firms who actively try to change this practice are new.

Why don’t legal recruiters throw out all CVs where itses are confused? Why doesn’t legal training include grammar tests?

Young attorneys rarely face formal repercussions at their firms for misspellings in their draft motions. But, consider this: As Wiens points out, we live in a competitive market. Where your firm fails, another one is poised to take over.

The courts have long proved grammar is important. So, the question is (like proper verb tense) does your firm agree?

-WB

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