Lawyers can be terrible writers

Rian van der Merwe wrote an interesting post titled “Good writing and the death of plain language” recently which touches on something I think about each time I sit down to write an article or a contract.

Van der Merwe quoted William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” and this one paragraph stood out for me:

Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it.

This is something that afflicts the legal profession. Lawyers have always been pretty difficult to understand and despite plain language imperatives they persist with only mildly more intelligible language. I occasionally find myself having a conversation with a lawyer who is dumbfounded by something I have written, not because it is complex (which it usually isn’t) but because I make a point of not writing like a typical lawyer using typical document formats.

It still surprises me that so many lawyers seem to link the complexity of the language they use in their documents with their sense of worth as lawyers. It’s as if writing in legalese is an inherent characteristic of a lawyer instead of our ability to understand complex transactions and describe them effectively and simply in the legal documents we write.





  1. Serena Manzoli avatar

    Yes, totally agree. And that triggers an interesting issue: do lawyers write like that because they think that clients expect legalese from them? And do clients expect legalese indeed?

    1. Paul avatar

      I think lawyers created their clients’ expectations and, from that point on, clients and lawyers feed their resulting expectations of how lawyers should work, on one hand, and what clients seem to expect from lawyers, on the other hand.

      1. Serena Manzoli avatar

        Yes, indeed. The problem is not only lawyers, is also people being convinced by lawyers that legalese is a credibility stamp. We need to work on both side of the market, there needs a massive image change: throwing out legalese and convincing clients – and people- that you don’t lose credibility because you say things clear. Quite the opposite.

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