Poetic Justice

A Dallas lawyer is urging his colleagues to put rhyme and reason back into legal writing—by using plain old English.

The notion of a plain-speaking lawyer might well strike the casual observer as the ultimate oxymoron. Lawyers, after all, have a well-deserved reputation for making simple matters complex. Consider, for example, the judge who opined, “ Parens patriae cannot be ad fundandem jurisdictionem. The zoning question is res inter alios acta” (which loosely translates as “The court doesn’t have jurisdiction”). Or the Houston lawyer who began a sentence “Accordingly, in the interest of brevity,” and then went on for 76 more words.

Or consider the State Bar of Texas’ Plain-Language Committee, which offers its own less-than-succinct definition of plain language: “Writing that conveys its meaning clearly and concisely to the intended audience in an appropriate tone of voice.”

Herewith, we now introduce Bryan A. Garner, the head of the seventeen-member Plain-Language panel, who contends that his committee is “on the side of the angels.” A 33-year-old Dallas attorney, Garner has cast himself as a crusader against “legalese,” the incomprehensible language in which lawyers too often speak and write. “Words are the primary tools lawyers have,” Garner declares, his voice rising with indignation. “Eloquence—the ability to communicate clearly—ought to be a highly prized skill in the legal profession. It seems to be neglected almost universally.”

But stamping out lawyers’ language is likely to be more difficult than understanding a three-party contract. Attorneys employ legalese partly because they believe judges prefer it, partly out of ossified habits that date back to law school, and partly because they believe it makes the profession indispensable. “The idea is to be unintelligible to make yourself necessary,” says Kevin Dubose, a member of the Plain-Language Committee who teaches legal writing at the University of Houston Law School. “We express ourselves in ways that are calculated to create barriers between ourselves and the general public.”

Darrell Jordan, a partner in the Dallas firm of Hughes and Luce, maintains that lawyers employ jargon to sound like lawyers. “That’s the way the cases we studied were written,” he says. “People thought unless you could say it obscurely, it must not be very sound legal work.”

The Plain-Language Committee has taken up the cause of stamping out such insidious ways of thinking. Part of a growing international campaign against legalese, the panel is almost entirely Garner’s creation. He proposed it in November 1989 to Jordan, who was then the president of the State Bar. “He was talking to somebody who didn’t know much about the concept at all,” Jordan recalls. “But Bryan really had a vision that this thing could be useful, not only to lawyers but to the institutions of our government and the public at large.”

The committee has also turned out to be useful to Garner. Like all crusaders, Garner seems to have been born to his mission. A serious, square-faced man who looks like a young Andy

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