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Many attorneys are working to clean up the 'verbal trash'

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • December 16, 2012 - 4:07 PM

In an earlier column I ventured the comment that "many attorneys are excellent writers" who "care about precise communication."

Not everyone agrees.

"My daughter is part of a small group editing corporate reports that must pass SEC scrutiny," Ralph writes. "Her firm has several hundred attorneys (it's a hedge fund) who write comments, and without exception, their writing is just plain awful."

Ralph adds, "Management forbids the copywriters from correcting the bad attorney grammar" because "it might embarrass them. So the public ends up seeing that type of verbal trash."

According to Ralph, "In my daughter's firm, the attorneys consider low-paid copy editors to be needless and expensive labor and generally treat them with little respect."

To some degree, legal writers deserve the scorn that has been heaped upon them. But to suggest that no one in the profession cares is wrong. An attorney named Harvey (who is also a fiction writer) writes:

"I have partners who are considered among the smartest and best lawyers in Pennsylvania who actually brag about the fact that they haven't read a book in years because they're 'too busy to read.' I work a great deal with our younger attorneys on their writing and I find, sadly, that so many of them are not readers. What this means, of course, is [they lack] any sense of what clear, vigorous, fresh writing even looks like. This causes them to slip into the jargon- and cliché-filled writing that comes so easily when that's all that surrounds you."

So when Harvey works with associates who write poorly, he tells them to read "some good non-legal prose," and he "happily" suggests a handful of his favorite examples.

'Plain English'

Although attorneys like Harvey are working to improve the writing standards of their profession, Ralph has a point. Obscure, convoluted disclosure statements were so pervasive that in the late 1990s the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission launched the "plain English initiative," resulting in publication of "The Plain English Handbook."

Chapter 6, "Writing in Plain English," pertains most directly to what Ralph calls "verbal trash." It identifies nine common problems: long sentences, passive voice, weak verbs, superfluous words, jargon, numerous defined terms, abstract words, unnecessary details, and unreadable design and layout.

The "before and after" examples of revised text illustrate dramatic improvement. Under "Find hidden verbs," for example, compare "There is the possibility of prior Board approval of these investments" with "The Board might approve these investments in advance."

Under "Use the active voice and strong verbs," compare "The foregoing Fee Table is intended to assist investors in understanding the costs and expenses that a shareholder in the Fund will bear directly or indirectly" with "This table describes the fees and expenses that you may pay if you buy and hold shares of the fund."

Although the handbook offers no exercises to help legal writers practice, you can find a set I've posted by googling "SEC plain English exercises." Be sure to include the words "plain English" in your search, however, or you'll be taken to a different kind of exercise.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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