Book Review: Clarity for Lawyers, Effective Legal Language, by Mark Adler and Daphne Perry, published by The Law Society

by Sue Bramall

“This book should be obligatory reading for every law student, every lawyer who would like to improve their communication skills, and every communications professional who works with lawyers.”  Sue Bramall

When I finally closed my copy of Clarity for Lawyers, I was perplexed.  I had expected it to reveal those unfathomable rules which cause solicitors to capitalise frequently used nouns, in the way that private client lawyers capitalise ‘wills’ and ‘probate’, but none of the common nouns used by their colleagues in other departments.  Where was the chapter which explained how to say something in twenty words rather than ten?  Where was the encouragement to draft the longest sentence possible, preferably extending to a whole paragraph – or even a whole page? And most importantly, where was the advice to bury the most significant implications somewhere towards the end of the article after a concerted attempt to lose the reader along the way?

For, after nearly two decades of reviewing and editing articles written by lawyers, I was convinced that there was a set of rules which I had yet to stumble upon and which was taught in all the law schools of the land to those who would be drafting formal letters, contracts and pleadings.  I appreciated that legal students were not taught plain English and the art of writing for the media or the internet, but I was interested to know how they were taught to write.  What are the dark arts of legalese – a language which is clearly understood by other lawyers alone?

After reading Clarity for Lawyers, I am none the wiser as this is a book which outlines the very best practices in good writing.  These good practices could apply in any professional sphere, but are wonderfully specific to writing about the law and illustrated with examples which immediately drive the point home.

Mark Adler and Daphne Perry, a solicitor and barrister respectively, commence with thirty pages on what is wrong with traditional legal writing. The list of sixteen indisputable reasons include that it wastes time and money, is imprecise and can cause unnecessary mistakes, it alienates clients, their advisers and judges and as I have often found is ‘as dull as lead (and almost as indigestible).’

The next section discusses what makes good writing, and how good writing helps to convey information about the law accurately, precisely, efficiently and persuasively.

Part C is a series of chapters addressing a different aspect of effective writing, with relevant examples, references and helpful advice.  Topics range from tone (urging more humanity) to organisation (don’t just write in the order that you think of things) to the choice of words and potential use of computer aids.

‘Make it human’ is one of the things I often scribble on draft articles that come across my desk.  Reading an article where the subjects are the claimant and the defendant, or the landlord and tenant, or the employer and employee rather than Mr Jones and Widget plc can be like a mental ping pong match as you try to follow who has the advantage as the story bounces from one side of the table to the other.  Often it is not clear who the article is relevant to – ie who else would benefit from taking or avoiding this course of action?

I particularly enjoyed the authors’ often pithy tone: ‘Let us call a spade a spade, though as eloquently as possible’.

The fourth part of the book demonstrates the risks of getting it wrong, and Part E covers common law rules of interpretation.

Everything in Clarity for Lawyers chimes with how we encourage lawyers who we work with to write, which tends to follow style guides such as the one for The Economist. 

This book should be obligatory reading for every law student, and every lawyer who would like to improve their communication skills, and every communications professional who works with lawyers.

Available from the Law Society bookshop for £34.95.

This book review was first published by The Law Society. 

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