Sunday, September 25, 2011

In Brief ... Not

A week or so ago my old high school friend Ed (Ed the attorney, not Ed the Professor Emeritus of Microbiology) posted a link to this article from the American Bar Association Journal on his Facebook page: 7th Circuit Slaps Lawyer for 345-Word Sentence and Briefs Full of ‘Gibberish.’

The synopsis of the article said simply that a federal appeals court was so aggravated by the quality of an Illinois lawyer’s legal writing that it ordered him to show cause why he should not be barred from practicing before the court. The court said the hapless lawyer was "unable to file an intelligible complaint,” even given three tries to do so. At least 23 sentences in the brief were over 100 words long, and the court decision included as an example a single sentence consisting of 345 words. You expect that in German, but in English, not so much.

To quote from the actual decision (which you can read in its entirety here),

“Each iteration of the complaint was generally incomprehensible and riddled with errors, making it impossible for the defendants to know what wrongs they were accused of committing ... Though the complaint was far longer than it needed to be, prolixity was not its chief deficiency. Rather, its rampant grammatical, syntactical, and typographical errors contributed to an overall sense of unintelligibility. This was compounded by a vague, confusing, and conclusory articulation of the factual and legal basis for the claims and a general 'kitchen sink' approach to pleading the case.”

Well, I guess they told him.

In his defense, the attorney claimed he was suffering from problems related to cancer treatments. Now, I'm all in favor of giving someone the benefit of the doubt, but churning out something utterly unintelligible even after three tries seems to say more about the quality of education than it does about the side effects of medical treatments. I don't claim to be the reincarnation of William Shakespeare, but I think I manage to spell correctly (even without spell-check) and write more or less clearly most of the time.

When ... and perhaps more importantly, why ... did we stop placing a premium on good written expression? I've seen lots of reasons cited: the decline in writing journals and personal letters, the advent of the telephone for immediate verbal communication, and the proliferation of e-mail and text messaging to name a few. But whatever the reason, I think it's sad that we have people in positions of responsibility and authority who can charge hundreds of dollars an hour for their services, but can't write a clear and grammatical English sentence.

Of course, if you're a member of Congress, it doesn't matter if you can write well because you can't agree with anyone on what to write, anyway.

And that's really sad.

Have a good day. Write something (and yes, allenwoodhaven, I still owe you the letter I promised you ... it's coming).

More thoughts tomorrow.



John said...

wat about txt speak? no upper case letters? using numbers 2b brief? btw im all 4 better writing but who will teach it?

Mike said...

I skimmed the article and found these.......

We include a sampling to provide an understanding of its shortcomings:
Lack of punctuation. At least 23 sentences contained 100 or more words. This includes sentences of 385, 345, and 291 words but does not include sentences set off with multiple subsections.

Rule 8(a) requires parties to make their pleadings straightforward, so
that judges and adverse parties need not try to fish a gold coin from a bucket of mud.

The statement about rule 8a is some pretty fancy legalese.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Attorney's should:
1. Be brief;
2. Wear briefs;
3. Write intelligible briefs.

Journal articles in psychology can be extremely obscure. Some are unwilling to write a simple declarative sentence.

Anonymous said...

Things will get worse with text messaging being so widely used.