Avoid jargon and legalese.

Use clear, precise language in your legal writing.

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Legal writing abounds with sentences that only a lawyer could write:

The undersigned hereby further notifies you and each of you that he does not recognize any right alleged by you, whether referred to by you in said lease or not, to the return to you of Twenty Thousand Dollars ($ 20,000) or any sum at all, as alleged in your notice of intention to terminate said lease, or for any reason, right, or claim whatsoever, and on the contrary, hereby notifies you that pursuant to Paragraph 10 of said Rex Arms lease, upon the final termination of said lease by you, pursuant to your notice of intention to terminate said lease, you and each of you shall and will thereupon forfeit all of your right, title and interest in and to said Twenty-Five Thousand Dollars ($ 25,000) and/or Twenty Thousand Dollars ($ 20,000) or any and all sums referred to therein, to the undersigned.

That paragraph was written in the 1940s, but many of its linguistic devices — such as the redundancy of repeating each number twice, the pompous references to “the undersigned,” and the use of jargon such as “said lease” and “therein”— remain common today.

Instead of aiming to sound like a lawyer, you should aim to sound like a writer of popular nonfiction. In other words, you should see your role as explaining complex ideas in a simple, clear, and readable manner. One aspect of that is that you should purge your writing of jargon and legalese.

“Jargon” refers to abstract technical (or pseudo-technical) language that professionals use to communicate quickly among themselves and mark themselves as insiders.[1] Jargon sometimes leaks into non-specialist language as well, as one sees in the proliferation of terms such as utilize (instead of use), impact (instead of affect or effect), and interface with (instead of meet with). As stylist Jacques Barzun put it, jargon is often inspired by “a desire to dignify the subject and the writer, coupled with the belief that important matters require a special vocabulary.”[2]

Legalese is a species of jargon peculiar to lawyers. It is characterized by practices such as using the pronoun said (instead of that or it), overusing and misusing the verb shall, making indirect references such as the undersigned and the above-captioned case, and using ritual phrases such as Comes now before the court.

It is important to distinguish legalese from terms of art. The latter are technical terms that fill a gap in the language by providing a shorthand reference to a legal concept that would otherwise require explanation. Examples of terms of art include negligence (instead of carelessness) and res ipsa loquitur.[3]

Terms of art are unavoidable, but you should strive to purge your writing of all legalese. Here are some examples of words and phrases to eliminate:

  • for the foregoing reasons (delete or revise to for these reasons)

  • herein, hereinafter, therein, thereof, whereof

  • in the affirmative, in the negative

  • in the instant case (revise to in this case or here)

  • pursuant to (revise to under or in accordance with)

Footnotes

[1]     Bryan Garner defines jargon as “the special, usually technical idiom of any social, occupational, or professional group. It arises from the need to streamline communication, to save time and space—and occasionally to conceal meaning from the uninitiated.” Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern English Usage 535–36 (2016). He opines that it is acceptable when one specialist is talking with another, but unacceptable when “its purpose is to demonstrate how much more the speaker or writer knows as a specialist than ordinary listeners or readers do.” Id.

[2]     Jacques Barzun, Simple and Direct 113 (4th ed. 2001) (discussing what Barzun calls the “pseudo-technical tone”).

[3]     The phrase res ipsa loquitur “refers to the doctrine allowing that in some circumstances, the mere fact of an accident’s occurrence raises an inference of negligence so as to establish a prima facie case.” Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage 763 (2d. ed. 1995).


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Ryan McCarl (LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog) teaches Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law and is a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl.