Thursday, August 26, 2010

Can legal writing principles improve your blog writing?

In case you haven't noticed, I'm a member of one of the lowest classes of life forms on earth - an attorney. As do most other bottom feeders in the profession, I write a lot. Since my dream job as a prosecutor has yet to materialize, and therefore I don't get to hang out in court as much as I'd like and yell out things like "objection!" "hearsay!" or "hang that sumbitch," I do a lot of record reviews and what you call in the business law-and-motion practice. The end result is a written product of some sort.

In the first year of law school (in the States at least) students take a course in legal writing & research. After realizing that the course is generally useless, students get summer jobs and figure out what real legal writing is more or less about, primarily depending on your employer. I decided to ponder on some of the basic principles of legal writing that I picked up in school, internships and roughly a year in practice and see if we can apply some principles to the hobby blog.

Law is full of jargon: motion for summary judgment, res ipsa loquitor, interpleader, buggery (this is my law dictionary, seriously). Our wargaming hobby is also full of jargon, some related to rules, to painting or created in the community and spread via the internets: force org, BSB, MEQ, dry-brushing, leafblower.* When I jumped into the online hobby community I had to quickly catch up on a lot of these terms. For someone brand new to the hobby or even a new game system, learning the vocabulary is tricky, just as it was my first year of law school. Obviously, we have to use the terms of our art. I would expect another legally educated person to know what interrogatories** are and a hobby blogger would probably expect their readers to know what MEQ is. My point here is to be careful about letting your writing becoming too bogged down with jargon.

Length is important. Most courts limit the length of a written motion (or you can file an application for additional pages, but this unrelated to this topic). The judge (or more like their law clerks or the court house's research staff) have better things to do than read some overly lengthily pontification that belongs in a legal journal, when a 10 pager will get the job done. Another example, I often review and summarize medical records related to personal injury claims. These are reported out to a client, because they need to be kept informed, but they sure as shit don't want to read through 100+ pages of that crap themselves. They also don't want a 20 page summary of it either. I've had to learn to filter out the meaningless details and present the important information in a format that won't cause the reader to fall asleep. Thus, the important lesson here is too develop the ability to write efficiently. Being able to present an idea cleanly, concisely and without needless repetition is important.*** This is why I have problems with the way GW writes a lot of their rules.****

On that note, I'll cease and desist for the time being. I might revisit this idea in the future. Until then, I'll try to get something painted and posted.

*I didn't make this one up, so don't hate on me Guard players.

** Written questions that one sends to another party in lawsuit, who is then obligated to provide answers to said questions.

*** If you wanna see a good example of how to totally fuck this principle up, check out this Friday Night Internet Fight.

**** Kennedy wrote a good article about this idea a short while back


  1. two questions:

    1. Did you have to read Melville's Billy Budd in law school? I once had an English prof. claim that all law students read this, but have yet to meet one that has.

    2. Nothing is worse than not knowing Jargon. My first professional translation involved a "terms of sales and shipping" document for a german manufacturer of miniature pneumatic components. I wanted to kill myself.

    revision: 1 question and one completely off base observation.

  2. These are both good principles for writing in general; avoid falling into the realm of simply spitting out buzzwords and keep things as short as you can manage while getting your point across.

    On the former, however, there has to be a gradation depending on your audience. Most jargon terms are created because they refer to something commonly referenced by the subculture/profession in question; they're shorthand. So there's no point to needlessly spelling out "3+ save Toughness 4 troops" rather than writing MEQ just because you want to avoid sounding bad.

  3. @Dethtron: I have never even heard of that novel. The only non-legal assigned reading I had in law school was some American history because my constitutional law prof (radio host Hugh Hewitt) decided the class needed a better grasp of the drafting of the Constitution.

    @Dethron/AbusePuppy: I guess a way to re-express my idea is that leaning on jargon too heavily can be a detriment to the finished writing. I agree with Puppy about the audience observation.

    @AbusePuppy: your s/n makes me sad, I have two dogs I rescued from the shelter, and I'm pretty sure one 'em was abused to some extent. Wow, that was totally off topic.

  4. Ahh, Bob Loblaw. It's been a while.

    'I would expect another legally educated person to know what interrogatories are.'
    I hadn't heard/read of that term til now but that's because over here (and probably in England too) you don't get any formal legal training (court procedures etc) until you do your apprenticeship, whether that is as a Barrister or Solicitor.

    So there.

    We had Brian Garner's Legal Writing in Plain English. One of the things I took away from that was to avoid double negatives at all costs. I despise that even more than the unnecessary use of jargon and almost as much as Harvard referencing.

    As long as you're aware of your target audience then the use of jargon is fine as you'd expect them to know what you're talking about ahead of time.

    I had a lecturer that was presenting his Business thesis and had to do it in front of a huge group and at the end his first question was:
    'What's an SME?'

    He didn't realise he had been talking to a room full of engineers...

  5. Well Stormy, you're Irish, so there! We did briefly gloss over discovery methods in 1st year civil procedure, mostly to learn that ongoing & repetitious discovery violations can get you sanctioned in court. I write a heap of discovery related motions at work, unfortunately.

    We don't have that barrister/solicitor distinction here - maybe as soliciting is a prostitution related offense in most states.

    I agree with the 'target audience' point. I think you see more inappropriate use of jargon in forums than on blogs - where the use of short hand and bad grammar is most prevalent.

  6. 'Well Stormy, you're Irish, so there!'
    Yeah I am, and every day is a party.

    'We don't have that barrister/solicitor distinction here - maybe as soliciting is a prostitution related offense in most states.'

    But not in Vegas, baby!

    Solicitor = representative.
    Barrister = advocate.

    That's what it boils down to.

    The distinction between blogs and forums probably arises because blogs are more personal, and take a lot of work to get off the ground so you need to put in the work to get people to contribute whereas a forum is a race against time to stop someone else's stupidity seeping all over the page when someone asks for advice and some of the basics fly out the window.

  7. ...and I've considered relocating to Ireland to abscond from my students loans. I think I'll go pick up a 6 pack of Harp and fantasize about that.

    Actually, in the great shit-hole state of Nevada, prostitution is illegal in the county in which Vegas is located, and generally in most of its larger metro areas (Reno, Carson City). So you can have blackjack OR hookers, but not both. They also don't like out-of-staters robbing people in hotel rooms - as Oj found out the hard way.

    I've herd the distinction between solicitor/barrister, I just never remember which is which.

  8. 'I think I'll go pick up a 6 pack of Harp and fantasize about that.'
    Harp? Ugh. That's terrible stuff. The Nordies can keep it. I'm not a fan of Guinness either before you ask.

    Funnily enough I did my thesis on gambling and know a bit about the counties that have legalised both it and prostitution. Just a pity I couldn't convince the college to give me a grant to visit there to conduct research.

    'herd': Lol.

    I'd keep dreaming the dream for a while - the market here has gone to shite and its very hard to get a job at the moment, so be thankful you can complain about form-filling for the time being lad.

    Then again, they're always looking for people to draw up/conclude agreements with lawyers in the States. If you know anything about international contracts there might be a place for you.

    And don't worry about drinking on the job - there's like a 40% alcoholism rate amongst lawyers here so you'd fit right in. :)

  9. I'm not a fan of Guinness either, so no I won't ask.

    Hell, I'd consider moving there and tending bar or working as a garbage man for the rest of my days if it meant I never had to pay my loans back. Unfortunately, I focused on criminal law in school, not international business transactions.

    Funny you mention alcoholism. I just attended the mandatory 1 hour seminar on "substance abuse in the legal profession" for the state bar's "continuing legal education" program. After it was done I really wanted a beer.