“The minute you read something that you can’t understand, you can almost be sure it was drawn up by a lawyer.”
This quote, by Will Rogers, captures perhap the one thing most people imagine about lawyers–they’re incomprehensible! Legal jargon. It’s a pain, but it comes up in e-mails, reports, and everyday writing.
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.
“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?
If you’re not leaving the best possible impression in your business writing, take C4CM’s audio course, “Writing at Work: Essential Skills to Communicate Effectively in Business,” on Friday, May 6, 2016 at 11:00 AM to 12:15 PM Eastern.
Whether you’re crafting a short and sweet email, writing reports, memos, or performance appraisals, this power-packed webinar will guide you through the key steps and basic principles that will make your communications stand out from the pile and get the job done.
Designed specifically for managers, this critical program will review essential writing techniques to make the most of all your business communications, and help you become a more confident, capable communicator, including how to:
- Know the what and how of it – quickly work out exactly what you need to say and how to say it most effectively
- Polish it till it shines – use simple techniques for editing and fine-tuning your copy for clarity and maximum impact
- Connect with copy – leverage emails, letters and social media to forge valuable business relationships and to build your personal brand
- Craft impressive business documents – write the kinds of bids, proposals, reports and promo materials on which successful careers are built
You will also learn:
- The five most common writing mistakes made by managers, and how to avoid them
- When and what to capitalize
- Words and phrases you should never use in business writing
- How to write business documents that elicit a specific response from the reader
- How to state your objective clearly and concisely, and lose the jargon
- Simple steps to go from procrastination to completion of any size writing project
- Top three characteristics of effective business communication
- Best practices for understanding your writing strengths and weaknesses
- Methods to maintain consistency in writing style across your organization