Monday, May 21, 2012

Ease Up on the Legalese

The recent Mother’s Day holiday reminded me of the role that some very strong women have played in my life.  Without them, I most certainly would never have become the woman I am today.  For many of us in the younger generation of lawyers, our mothers held down full-time jobs while also serving as the house cleaners, checkbook balancers, carpool drivers, and homework helpers.  Our fathers, on the other hand, had the enviable task of simply working for a living.*
When I was in law school, I took a Poverty Law seminar in which I wrote a paper about payday lending and the various ways in which the states have attempted to regulate these usurious schemes.  I distinctly recall a conversation with my mother, who has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, in which she said,

“I’d love to read your paper if you think I’m smart enough to understand it.” 

Her comment underscores one of the very problems with the legal system today—its inaccessibility, or perceived inaccessibility, to non-lawyers. 
With respect to legal writing, the recent trend has been a movement away from legalese to plain language.   I do not know whether this trend is attributable to Generation X and Generation Y, the overall societal movement away from formality in writing (for example, the use of texting and Twitter to communicate), the transition to email as the primary means of communication, or some other trend.  Regardless of the reason, I think the movement toward plain language is positive in that it de-mystifies the law, even if just a little, for non-lawyers and does away with legalese that is sometimes difficult for even lawyers to understand.

Some of my "favorite" legalese and the plain language alternatives

Legalese                                      Plain Language

Inasmuch as                                Since/Because

With respect to                            About

Null and void                               Null/Void

Sufficient number of                    Enough

During such time as                     While

Notwithstanding the fact that        Although/Despite

*For those of you who think women and men are anywhere close to "equal," Google the name "Kathleen M. Sullivan."  She is believed to be the first female name partner at an AmLaw 100 firm.  Guess when she was made a name partner?  I'll give you a hint--it wasn't during the 20th century.  Think MMX.

Friday, May 4, 2012


I give a presentation each semester on legal writing to undergraduates taking a business writing course.  One of the things I emphasize is the need for precision in legal writing--say what you mean and mean what you say.  In addition to all the grammatical issues I see as a practitioner (comma splices, lack of subject-verb agreement, and mixed tenses, to name a few), one of the things that strikes me is the lack of precision in what is written by attorneys, judges, and, sometimes, even appellate justices. 

I suppose the need for precision is more clear to me than many other practitioners because I am a coverage attorney.  Much of my practice is devoted to analyzing and interpreting language in insurance policies, where a comma can mean the difference between no coverage and $1,000,000 in coverage.    

I recently was involved in a (non-coverage) case that highlights the need for precision by all practitioners.  This case probably would have settled long before trial had the attorney been precise in drafting written discovery.

In the case, the plaintiff, an attorney herself, claimed she sustained personal injuries in an automobile accident.  The plaintiff's counsel drafted written discovery requests and asked the defendant to provide the substance of any conversation she had with the plaintiff "regarding the cause of the accident."  The defendant responded that she had no conversations with the plaintiff regarding the cause of the accident, and the case proceeded.

On the eve of trial, the plaintiff's counsel learned that, according to the defendant, as the plaintiff stepped out of her car at the scene of the accident, the plaintiff angrily shook her fist at the defendant and told her: "I'll sue you and take you for everything you have."  The plaintiff's counsel sought to exclude any testimony regarding the alleged statements by his client on the ground that the defendant did not disclose the statement in response to written discovery requests.

The judge denied the plaintiff's request, finding that the plaintiff's interrogatories to the defendant did not encompass the plaintiff's alleged statement about suing the defendant.  The judge rightfully concluded the plaintiff's interrogatory sought only conversations about the "cause" of the accident.  Because the plaintiff's alleged statement did not pertain to the "cause" of the accident, it was not responsive to the plaintiff's request and, therefore, the defendant did not act inappropriately in failing to disclose the statement. 

As a result of the judge's ruling, the plaintiff, who was not a particularly sympathetic individual, settled with the defendant.  Had the plaintiff's counsel drafted a more precise request and sought, for example, all conversations "pertaining to the accident" or all conversations "at the scene of the accident," he would have learned of his client's alleged statement much sooner and probably would have attempted to settle the case much earlier.     

This is my first post on my first foray into the world of blogging.  I look forward to posting on this blog and sharing my thoughts on legal writing, the practice of law, current events, and other interesting law-related stories and anecdotes.