Legal Documents

Plain Language at the Supreme Court

This is a real win for human factors!!! Apparently, the Supreme Court got sick of complex, jargon-filled writing that was being delivered in most of the briefs they were getting from attorneys and ordered the attorneys to stop.

My Take

The discussion that followed is equally informative.

  • In the case that prompted the order, a patent attorney let the client write the petition who was a German business executive with limited English skills (oops).
  • It prompted conversation about why lawyers write in such dense, turgid prose in the first place.
  • Some lawyers responded that they felt they had to write this way or their boss/client would find it weak. Or not worth the high fees being charged to write it.

Your Turn

Whether we see any changes in the writing of complex legal documents (credit card agreements, estate documents, software license agreements, etc) remains to be seen. The guidelines have been out there for years (including my chapter on the subject in The Handbook of Warnings).

Do you think there is hope?

Image Credit: Jacob Windham

One thought on “Plain Language at the Supreme Court”

  1. One of the arguments made for complex legal writing is the need to reply on, or refer to, precedent. Once an attorney introduces the language from which they are drawing precedent, whether in writing or orally, they are in that mode. Changing the language of precedent for the sake of clarity today invites misinterpreting the precedent.

    I am not using this as a defense. I wholeheartedly support transitioning to plain language. If you follow many SCOTUS or Federal Court rulings, you find that when a term presents nebulous or potentially contradictory meanings, the Justices/Judges will refer to the dictionary for a “plain language” meaning. However, the power of legal precedent will probably put numerous hurdles in the way of a smooth or quick transition to plain language.

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