A J.D. Doesn’t Guarantee You Clear Communication Skills

Lawyers - write what you mean and mean what you write

You may be working on these skills the rest of your career.  That's OK. I am a big advocate of using your communications with colleagues, clients, and potential clients to set a tone for your identity as a legal professional (see my recent post in ABA's LawPractice Today on the topic).  As a lawyer, no matter how you are using your degree, writing is likely a major part of how you communicate, whether in legal briefs, transactional documents, motions, correspondence, or emails.  I welcome constructive criticism of my writing (legal and otherwise) and read lots of resources about honing my skills.  I am lucky enough today to impart some words of wisdom, via a professional writer, Derek Rice of Rice Communications.

Derek Rice is a prolific writer, creative marketer, social media geek and information junkie who has been creating high-quality copy, articles and other content that educates, informs, engages and is relevant to a variety of target audiences for nearly 20 years. As a regular contributor to Mainebiz and SDM Magazine, he covers companies and topics in the high-tech, security, do-it-yourself and environmental industries.

I met Derek about a year and a half ago, when he contacted me as the reporter interviewing me about the business competition my sister and I had recently won.  We hit the highlights for the interview, and then enjoyed a conversation beyond that, talking about business philosophies and living and working in Portland, ME.   We now bump into each other regularly, both in person and virtually.  So when he contacted me recently via Twitter saying "Proofreading this lawyer's article is like chasing a super-fast cobra through a dark labyrinth #runonsentences" I immediately said - tell me more. No really - I would love to hear your thoughts on how lawyers can be more effective in the written word.  So here he is, and his tips on writing.

Newsflash: "lawyer speak" is hard to follow

Writing is fundamental

As someone with a master's degree in English, I consider myself a pretty smart guy, especially in the "words" department, so you can imagine how frustrating it is when I have trouble understanding something that someone has written.

Case in point: Recently, proofreading an article written by an attorney nearly gave me a heart attack. Between legal jargon, seemingly interminable phrases and sentences, archaic words, minute and irrelevant details, and a serpentine flow of ideas and concepts, I had to re-read several sections two or three times before they made any sense. (For context, it's important to note that this article was written for a decidedly "non-legal" audience.)

The process was excruciating, but I'd be lying if I said it was at all surprising.

Some of the most intelligent (even brilliant), highly educated, well-spoken people I know have the hardest time with writing. It's not that they can't write; it's more like there's a disconnect between what they're thinking and their written expression of those thoughts. I've always struggled with anything beyond basic math and science, so don't think I'm judging anyone.

One reason for my struggles is that most of the legal writing I've read seems unnecessarily long-winded. I'm pretty sure you could take just about any legal document, cut out at least half the words, and it would still say all that needed to be said. (I'm reminded of the freshman English students I taught in grad school who would oversaturate their papers with adjectives - "very was a popular one - just to meet my minimum length requirement).

Don't think for a moment that I'm trying to change the way people in the legal community communicate with each other. Every industry is entitled to its "inside baseball" vocabulary and ways of doing things. I'm looking more at the way attorneys, judges, etc., communicate with those of us who don't have law degrees.

Good writing can earn respect; bad writing - especially when it's difficult to read - can leave a bad impression about the writer. And while I don't believe this, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the existing perception that lawyers intentionally write documents that are almost incomprehensible to "the masses" because they don't want us to grasp the full meaning of what they're saying.

Let's break it down.

On the subject of "expressing and not for preventing or concealing thought," I'll defer to a much more talented and accomplished writer. In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," English author George Orwell presented the following five rules for clear, concise, effective writing:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it's possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

I'd like to add my voice to Orwell's, but since I'm not much for rules, let's call these guidelines, which apply to writing or conversation in general.

  • Know your audience
  • Speak their language
  • Keep it simple
  • Keep it brief

As I think about it, I may be guilty of breaking that last rule, since I could probably sum up this entire piece in one sentence: When you're dealing with someone outside the legal profession, channel Ben Matlock.


A lifelong Mainer, Derek earned a bachelor's in journalism and mass communication and a master's in English, both from the University of Maine. You can find Derek online at  http://twitter.com/derekjrice or http://linkedin.com/in/derekrice.

What tips do you have for communicating with "non-lawyers" effectively?  Dig deep and think back to legal writing 1L year, writing those client letters, and please share below as comments. 

Chelsea Callanan is the founder of Happy Go Legal, a multi-media resource for new and aspiring legal professionals.  Mrs. Callanan is a 2008 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, and currently practices at Murray, Plumb & Murray in Portland, Maine, focusing on corporate and intellectual property needs of business of all sizes.