Legal writing vs. Legalese

You don’t have to look too far to find “legalese” in your life. Look at your mobile phone bill or your iTunes terms of use or the so-called bumper-to-bumper warranty on your car. We really aren’t fans of it, either.

The thing is that not all legal writing is really legalese. Every profession and every industry has its own terminology, jargon and pet phrases. The legal profession is no different. For example, I had never heard or read the word “sedulously” until I went to law school (I  am yet to use it in speech or writing, but I bet it would kill in Scrabble).

Some of the terms we use have a very specific and clear meaning, even though the term may be completely unfamiliar to non-lawyers. For example, in a will, a “per stirpes distribution” has a clear and definite meaning that can save the lawyer from having to write a paragraph of explanation. The problem is that most people need that term explained and this is why we generally prefer the plain language version, even if it takes a little longer to say or write. (Incidentally, our support staff get the double-whammy of hearing both legal jargon and military slang – including the odd bit of jackspeak).

Aside from obscure terms, another complaint about legal writing is that it’s just too wordy. We learned in law school that lawyers are professionally descended from scribes, who were paid by the word. (I assure you that this is no longer the case.) This payment scheme explains how redundancies like “null and void” and “cease and desist” came about.

However, not every long-winded document is chock-full of filler words. We often see real estate deals or separation agreements written from scratch or filled in from a Mad Libs-like online form. The people that bring these in are often surprised to find out that their nice, short document does not do what they want it to do (or may be entirely unenforceable) because certain provisions are missing.  A comprehensively written document, while a bit of a long read, can go a long way to properly identify and protect your rights.

At Patriot Law Group, we are big on clarity. We want to do more for our clients than just deliver a fair result; we want our clients to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, so they will understand what they’re signing and why. This is one of the reasons we prepare plans for our clients and it’s a big reason why we write in plain language as often as possible.

If I had to sum up my thinking on legal writing in two words, I would say, “eschew obfuscation.”

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