Why lawyers use Ten (10) Words when One (*1*) will do

Why do lawyers write in such prolix terms?

Just imagine if the tried to publish a Red Top Newspaper.

For one thing, the paper wouldn’t last very long …

Or operating in the world of advertising.

Mars slogan: A Mars a day helps you work rest and play.

A lawyer’s version: “A dark chocolate covered bar with caramel, nougat, sugar, cocoa and a whole host of other ingredients leads you in certain circumstances to perform at your best (but we offer no guarantee) and can help you with the stresses and strains of life”.

Lawyers have a knack of talking in language that is egotistical, verbose, prolix, tautological and mildly conceited [we know best]. And you can understand why: Lawyers are taught that the semantics are important: How to differentiate between a literal vs. a purposive interpretation is often crucial to the advice proffered, as is the interpretation of a judgment.

Of course, it is right that in circumstances where the placing of a comma (,) or full stop (.) is crucial no one would want to see the wrong advice given. But that is not the same thing as crafting a message that is understandable. Indeed many an argument has ensued from a wrongly worded document drafted by a lawyer!

When it comes to crafting a letter or email to your opposite number, it is perfectly understandable that you want to wear your learning on your sleeve. You want the other side to be on their metal and to take you seriously. If you can over-elaborate the issue then you will.

I can recall many an occasion where I received a two or three page letter, reading words that in any other circumstances would never appear. Using Latin was common place and quoting from learned judges was also another trick. This very often resulted in me responding with a letter or email that was just as detailed, long and more to do with making me look good than it was to further the issues. I did try to deviate from this approach but it was mighty hard because, as a litigator, my client always wanted me to be on the offensive and was never happy for a letter to lay on file unanswered or certainly not without a similarly wordy response.

How many times have you found yourself in a situation where you feel you were writing something for the look of it? In other words form over substance?

[Lawyers need to understand that clients don’t really want to pay for your learning. They pay for outcomes. The process is seldom of interest: do you need to send another standard, long letter on disclosure or witness statements? What does the client really need to know?]

But where this approach causes the most difficulty is in the area of business development or content creation that is memorable, interesting and has a WOW factor.

Lawyers get facts.

They get evidence.

But they don’t get simple, direct messaging.

Go look at your own firm’s website. There will be many, many messages crafted around the line: “What we do?” But how much of the language is pure gobbledygook? Or the page is simply padded out to make it look like the firm has something to say.

How about cutting everything in half. That is what Jason Fried did when he wrote his seminal book Re-Work. He just decided that it was too long and cut out half the book and then used some fantastic images to illustrate the rest of the book.

Lawyers don’t work on the premise, ‘less is more’. They apply ‘the more is much better’ modus operandi.

But if you want to stand out from the crowd then you need to start applying a 10% rule.  See if you can take away 90% of what you write and see if what is left makes sense. Don’t use words that most average people would find baffling and law specific.

Write in short sentences.

Get feedback. Seriously.

When was the last time you actually asked someone how your emails, memos or letters made them feel? Never.

Feedback is key.

This is not to lay yourself open to attack or belittling you or sullying your reputation but the best lawyers don’t need to hide their profession’s obsession with windy language.

Be different.

Think about your reader and not you.

Words are your craft but keeping it simple is key.

Be someone that others can look to as an example of what a contemporary lawyer would produce.

In the end your written word will form a major part of your legacy.

Being known for simplicity, engagement and WOW is far more important that being known for writing the longest letter or email in the firm.

~ Julian Summerhayes ~

4 responses to “Why lawyers use Ten (10) Words when One (*1*) will do”

  1. Miriam Said says:

    Someone once told me that to get as much useful information across to a reader as possible, you have to write a letter as if you are writing your curriculum vitae.

    This is because every time you write something, then you are giving the reader an instant impression of yourself and your language skills.

    Flood a reader with semantics and waffle and they won’t read the entire document and your information or message is lost. It also gives the impression that you don’t know what you are saying to the client and trying to bemuse them with legalese.

    Stop it. It isn’t big, nor clever or conductive to your cause.

  2. Miriam Said says:

    Someone once told me that to get as much useful information across to a reader as possible, you have to write a letter as if you are writing your curriculum vitae.

    This is because every time you write something, then you are giving the reader an instant impression of yourself and your language skills.

    Flood a reader with semantics and waffle and they won’t read the entire document and your information or message is lost. It also gives the impression that you don’t know what you are saying to the client and trying to bemuse them with legalese.

    Stop it. It isn’t big, nor clever or conductive to your cause.

  3. Theatre pure theatre. Lawyers need to write for their clients and not their cohort. Stop trying to impress should be their mantra. Thanks Miriam. I love your feedback. It always give a fresh perspective on things.

    J.

  4. Theatre pure theatre. Lawyers need to write for their clients and not their cohort. Stop trying to impress should be their mantra. Thanks Miriam. I love your feedback. It always give a fresh perspective on things.

    J.

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