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Lawyers, Plain English and '24'

When I watch 24, it is never with an eye to what I might take back to my law practice.  Not so Jay Shepherd, who found a lesson for lawyers in this season's very first episode, as he explains at his blog, Gruntled Employees.

In that first episode, as Shepherd recounts, National Security Advisor Karen Hayes questions White House Chief of Staff Thomas Lennox's interpretation of the president's directive. "In plain English," she says to him, "you're second-guessing the president." He shoots back: "Plain English does not allow for the nuances that my job requires, Karen."

If that response sounds familiar, it may be because we have heard it from lawyers often enough. As Shepherd writes:

Perhaps lawyers feel the same way, that plain English is inadequate for handling the "nuances" needed for legal writing. They think that legalese allows them to express themselves more precisely, as if talking about "said contract" is more precise than "this contract," or that "two (2) weeks" is more exact than "two weeks."

Those lawyers are wrong, Shepherd says. He cites Bryan Garner, who wrote in the Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage about the "myth of precision":

Traditionally, lawyers have aimed for a type of "precision" that results in cumbersome writing, with many long sentences collapsing under the weight of obscure qualifications. That "precision" is often illusory for two reasons: (a) ambiguity routinely lurks within traditional, legalistic language; and (b) when words proliferate, ambiguities tend to as well.

By contrast, 24's lead character, Jack Bauer, has no problem using plain English. As evidence, Shepherd recalls examples of Bauer's directness, such as this one: "I'm gonna need a hacksaw."

No ambiguity there. Now if Bauer could just teach lawyers how to go 24 hours without food, sleep or a bathroom break -- imagine the billables!

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on January 23, 2007 at 06:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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