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Plain English for Lawyers

Should lawyers write in plain English? I think they should. Most of them think otherwise.

The fact is lawyers don’t write in plain English; they don’t like plain English. Plain is simple, they think simple is easy and no one likes to give the impression that what they do is easy. Besides a legal issue is always a serious matter and complexity appears to be the norm. So they use ten words to say what could be said in two. They use archaic expressions to express common ideas. Trying not to leave room for vagueness, they turn redundant. They are so cautious that they become verbose and use long sentences which, most of the times make you forget what the main point was anyway. The result is a wordy, pompous, and often confusing style.

Of course, this is not new. There are already tons of books about legal writing and jokes and comic strips about lawyerisms. (This is one of the videos I recently used in one of the talks I gave about legal writing.) Well, and this is one more article about it, adding my view to the group of advocates of plain English.

Plain English for Lawyers

I think that good legal writing should not differ from ordinary well-written English. (Note that I said well-written English.) Once I read a fun phrase and I quote, “Good legal writing does not sound as if it had been written by a lawyer.” To me, that means good legal English is simply (good) plain English.

Here are some tips extracted from authoritative books on legal writing and plain English:

  • Do not use redundant legal phrases (doublets and triplets), such as null and void, full force and effect, lease, let and rent, will and testament, among many others.
  • Prefer verbs over nominalizations. Use assume, for instance, instead of making assumptions, or act instead of taking action.
  • Prefer the active voice over the passive. It is clearer.
  • Prefer the singular over the plural.
  • Avoid double negatives.
  • Tabulate.
  • Use short sentences.
  • Prefer familiar words.
  • Avoid long noun chains.
  • Learn how to use shall properly or avoid using it at all.
  • Don’t use all capitals.
  • Mind your punctuation.
  • Refer to people and companies by their names.
  • Proofread and edit your texts, always. Cross out unnecessary words.
  • Move citations into footnotes, whenever possible.
  • Make your texts speakable.
  • Read good legal literature. It’s contagious and won’t hurt you.
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