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June 27, 2012   Practice Management

Go Forth and Clarify

By Carol Clasby, J.D.

Go Forth and Clarify Carol Clasby, J.D. 
Style Editor, WealthCounsel

You know you’re in the right place when you attend a conference and have trouble deciding which breakout sessions to attend, truly lamenting the fact that you can’t attend them all.  Imagine impromptu table discussions about whether or not to bump the em dash; spirited international debates over the use of their as a gender-neutral singular possessive pronoun; and one presenter challenging another over the fundamental nature of communication—verbal or visual—while a palpable tension fills the air.  My brethren.

This spring, I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Clarity 2012 conference.  Clarity describes itself as “a worldwide group of lawyers and others who advocate using plain language in place of legalese.”  The Center for Plain Language and Scribes co-hosted the event.  Plain language practitioners from around the world with impressive credentials shared their experiences and challenges in implementing plain language initiatives.  Language experts were on hand as well, from a PhD-wielding consultant and former professor of rhetoric and information design, to the European Commission’s Head of Editing (imagine the task of producing plain language laws that span a multilingual, multicultural constituency—in 23 languages!)

Two conference highlights for me were Judge Lee Rosenthal’s presentation, When Style Met Substance and Both Blinked:  Rule 56 and the style revisions to the federal rules of civil procedure and Professor Christopher Trudeau’s presentation, The Public Speaks: An empirical study of legal communication.

Judge Rosenthal has served as a US District Court Judge, Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, since her appointment in 1992.  She has spearheaded style reviews of the federal rules.  Judge Rosenthal discussed the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and how the style review committee whittled 500 shalls down by 499.  This lone shall remaining in Rule 56, she said, demonstrated how “a commitment to avoiding changes in substantive meaning led to a restoration of what is admittedly flawed language, and why that was the right result.”  Putting aside the debate between following the ABC Rule or the American Rule regarding words of authority, this presentation underscored the dynamic vitality of language.  Determining word choice can be like catching a fish with your bare hands:  elusive, exciting, vexing, and, if you persevere, rewarding. 

Professor Trudeau, AssistantLegal CommunicationsProfessor at the Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan, presented his findings after conducting a legal communications survey of clients and nonclients.  As an advocate of plain language, he wanted to provide quantitative evidence of the public’s perception of language in legal documents.  Most compelling to me was his conclusion that as the education level increased, so did the preference for plain language.  Trudeau’s data shows that most respondents were "annoyed" by complicated terms and Latin words.  Interestingly, the tiny percentage of respondents who were "impressed" by complicated terms and Latin words were the least educated.  So, according to this study, the attorneys who think their more sophisticated clients expect or appreciate language that is more complex. . .are wrong.  Professor Trudeau’s study will be published in an upcoming issue of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing.  (But if you would like a sneak peek at an earlier version of the article, you can find it at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1843415.)

While many of the presentations focused on style, discussions on form were popular as well.  Form—the elements that visually organize communications—is playing an increasingly essential role in clarity as new channels for legal communications are being used.  Your website looks great on your 21-inch monitor, but how does it look from a tablet?  If judges are reviewing electronic pleadings from their smart phones, what format facilitates readability?  Mr. Josiah Fisk, principal at More Carrot in Boston, Massachusetts, presented Clear Beyond Words:  Visual thinking and how it’s changing plain language.  From disclosure documents to road signs, he detailed the impact of visual cues, while explaining the difference between information design and graphic design: information design is about displaying information effectively, whereas graphic design focuses on aesthetics.  His examples of the 2000 presidential ballot in Florida and the data display charting temperatures and O-ring stress limits were compelling—he contends that better information design would have yielded vastly different results in the election outcome and in the decision to go ahead with the Space Shuttle Challenger’s final launch.

Style and form work together to bring clarity to the substance of legal communications.  If you’re interested in current practices and emerging trends in the style and form of legal language, I highly recommend you visit the sponsoring organizations’ websites for membership information:  www.clarity-inte
rnational.netwww.scribes.org, and www.centerforplainlanguage.org.  Better yet, consider attending the biennial Clarity conference and interact with plain language enthusiasts from around the world.  Next stop, Antwerp, Belgium for Clarity 2014.  Hope to see you there!

Style-Guide
Editor's Notes:

View the WealthDocx Style Guide created by Carol Clasby. 
 

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4 Comments

Layla Goushey Tue Jul 3, 2012
Thank you for this important information about style and form in the presentation of text. I agree that clarity is becoming even more important in our digital era. This issue extends beyond writing for the legal profession, as is noted by the information from Mr. Fisk.
Carol Clasby Tue Jul 3, 2012
Thank you for your post. Indeed, technology both requires and enables a communication strategy based on information design.
Joe Kimble Tue Jul 3, 2012
Carol, Good summary of conference highlights. We now have lots of empirical evidence that using plain language could save business and government huge amounts of money and that readers--including legal readers--strongly prefer plain language to legalese and officialese. Now if we could just get lawyers to let go of the myths about plain language . . .
Carol Clasby Fri Jul 6, 2012
Thank you for visiting, Joe. I'm looking forwarding to reading your latest book!

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