A lawyer has two jobs. First, the lawyer thinks about how the law might work, good or bad, in their client’s situation, and then tells their client. Second, the lawyer brings others around to ideas about the law that are good for their client.
Outside my office, there’s a poster of the brilliant xkcd comic “Up Goer Five,” in which the various complicated parts of the Saturn V Moon Rocket are “explained using only the ten hundred words people use the most often.” As the comic explains, the “US Space Team’s Up Goer Five” is “the only flying space car that has taken anyone to another world.”
It is an amusing joke, juxtaposing one of the greatest engineering feats of humanity with a kindergarten-level vocabulary. It also carries an important reminder about the limitations of language: rightly or wrongly, words have different meanings for different people. (“Inconceivable!”) The first paragraph of this post won’t win any awards, but the vast majority of the population can read it and understand it: it is written at a 7th grade level with every word being one of the “ten hundred” most often used words except for law, lawyer, and client. You can check it with the Up-Goer Five Text Editor and the Hemingway Editor — in fact, you might want to check all of your writing with both of those tools.
Lawyers are routinely attacked for their use of language: just last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education noted sardonically, “Only two classes of people, it seems, stick up for the adverb: young adults and members of the bar.” (I’ll gladly stand up for adverbs: a lawyer should not needlessly omit them.) Yet, few professions agonize so thoroughly over language as the law. Back in August, the American Bar Association’s journal for young lawyers had an issue devoted to writing. It’s worth a review by all lawyers, including those who fancy themselves great writers. If you’re going to read only one article, make it Michael Bess’ pithy “How To Write Better.”
Similarly, although advice about writing never goes out of style — writers like to write about writing, no surprise there — there seems to be a bit more chatter devoted to the subject thanks to the recent promotion of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. As The New York Times’ review summarized:
The cause of most bad writing, Pinker thinks, is not laziness or sloppiness or overexposure to the Internet and video games, but what he calls the curse of knowledge: the writer’s inability to put himself in the reader’s shoes or to imagine that the reader might not know all that the writer knows — the jargon, the shorthand, the slang, the received wisdom.
Yes, indeed. As Judge Richard Posner began his contribution to the aforementioned ABA article, “Successful communication requires the communicator to understand how much the person or persons to whom he is communicating understands.”
What I try to remember as a legal writer is that an ounce of empathy for the reader is worth a pound of grammar and vocabulary.
Continue Reading When Writing, An Ounce Of Empathy Is Worth A Pound Of Grammar