By Mitchell Dolman
University of Baltimore School of Law
Today, with social media and texting’s ubiquitous influence on the way we communicate, we often rely on colloquialisms and over-utilize phrases when communicating verbally. However, these tendencies have unintentionally developed people’s brevity. As technological communication has become increasingly more popular, the use of acronyms and short-hand sentences has grown, and the use of punctuation has shrunk. People tend to boil communications down to the fewest characters as possible. While legal writing should not go to that extent, modern technology trends are a good reminder to be wary of verbosity in professional settings. Perhaps this oversimplification causes lawyers to overcorrect their writing into something even wordier, or maybe the brevity trend in our personal lives causes us to overexplain our thoughts in an academic setting. Whatever the reason, verbosity remains a common issue in legal writing. Current and future legal professionals need to strike a balance because verbose arguments can become less persuasive, which can have negative consequences for the author.
Verbosity is an issue in legal writing, including law students’ classwork, academics’ scholarly writings, and attorneys’ appellate-court briefs. Calling a writing “verbose” is just an elegant way to denote excessive wordiness. In other words, “more” does not always mean “better”. If you must ask yourself “is this sentence too wordy?” The answer is probably yes.
No matter the reader’s sophistication, brevity is vital for effective legal writing because conciseness strengthens arguments. Surprisingly, sometimes judges publicly denounce verbose, appellate-court briefs. Laurence H. Silberman of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia exclaimed many briefs are too wordy to be persuasive. Judge Silberman stated, “That amount of reading — especially bad reading — can thin the patience of even the most diligent judge.” Other judges agree with Judge Silberman, having asked Congress to implement proper word and pages limits on briefs. Currently, federal briefs have a 13,000-word limit, which judges believe needs to be at least halved. As the late Justice Scalia explained, “[e]very word that is not a help is a hindrance because it distracts. A [reader] who realizes that a brief is wordy will skim it; one who finds a brief terse and concise will read every word.” Perhaps the issue stems from law students’ tendency to write as they did while obtaining undergraduate degrees in history, English, or other literary fields. Professors in these fields “preferred verbosity to tight writing,” believing “flowery language, passive verbs, and complex sentence structures” can be effective. Nevertheless, through developing proper editorial skills, even those who rely on verbosity can become brevity masters.
Proper proofreading is paramount to develop such skills. Reading the writing aloud, for instance, typically helps pinpoint wordiness. Additionally, writers should “sit with one’s paper” before trying to properly flush out detailed ideas. Although detrimental to legal writing, verbosity can be fixed. Consider these common issues and their simple solutions:
Example 1: Adding words that do not add to the sentence.
Original: When analyzing the defendant’s and plaintiff’s situations, for all intents and purposes, there are no differences the court should note.
The phrase “for all intents and purpose” adds absolutely no meaning to this sentence. If something sounds wordy while proofreading, read the document aloud and ask yourself “does this word add any meaning to the sentence?” If no, simply delete the phrase.
Revised: When analyzing the defendant’s and plaintiff’s situations, there are no differences the court should note.
Example 2: Using wordy introductory phrases.
Original: It is very evident that the defendant is liable for trespass because his actions met all the elements.
Introductory phrases like “it is very evident that” are common yet unnecessary. Legal writing is about analysis and showing the reader, not telling. Avoid wordy introductory phrases and describe the elements for trespass using the facts presented, to show the reader the defendant is liable.
Revised: The defendant is liable for trespass because he intentionally and unlawfully entered onto another’s land.
Example 3: Using legalese/jargon, redundancy, and unnecessary adjectives.
Original: In the present case at hand, the contract was incredibly ambiguous due to the fact that it neglected to portray adequate “quid-pro-quo” consideration.
Legal-style introductory phrases like “in the present case at hand,” are common, but unnecessary. The phrase is redundant; the writer need not include both “present case” and “at hand” for the reader to conclude the same point. Further, the word “incredibly” is an unnecessary adjective to describe the contract’s ambiguity. “Due to the fact that,” another overused phrase, may be easily replaced with “since” or “because.” Lastly, adding terms like “neglected,” “portray,” and “quid-pro-quo” may lead a writer to think they sound more sophisticated, but because these filler words add little to the sentence, they have the opposite effect.
Revised: Here, the contract was ambiguous because it lacked proper consideration; OR
The contract here was ambiguous because it lacked proper consideration.
While other verbosity examples exist, focusing on eliminating the more common ones from your writing is a great place to start. Although it may be difficult to re-train your writing, the more editing you do, the better you will get at spotting and correcting the issue!