jargon in legal writingIf you’ve written a sentence like “the firm is escalating its scalable platforms to leverage best practices and create new paradigms for an outside-the-box solution,” I’d like you to close your laptop and never open it again.

Business jargon is like kudzu in a Georgia garden — everywhere and hard to kill. It pervades bad marketing and public relations copy. And those of us working in or with the legal industry are highly susceptible to this invasive species, having cultivated our own copy-deadening strain called “legalese.”

We need to fight back. Jargon is a business killer. It confuses clients, colleagues, and potential business partners. It turns off talented job candidates, and stymies public relations. And its sheer ridiculousness can open a business to public scorn. (See here for a fine example.) For lawyers, jargon-laden, legalese-bound client and marketing materials can add to the general impression that they just don’t communicate like other people and twist words to their own ends. That’s exactly the opposite of what most lawyers and law firms want from their marketing efforts.

The problem, of course, is that jargon clouds meaning. Sometimes this is deliberate. A government agency can hide a small war in bureaucratic babble. But most businesses aren’t issuing marketing copy on their covert ops. They want attention, and they want to educate and inform their current clients and attract new ones.

I’d like to offer a few thoughts for you to ponder as you write:

  • Clarity above all. If you aren’t being clear, you risk turning off your customer or client. Ask yourself: Have you adequately explained the purpose of your message? Are the terms you’re using known by everyone? If you were to read this copy to a friend or family member outside the industry, would they get it? If the answer to any of these is no, start revising.
  • Latin is a dead language for a reason. In legal writing, you can’t get away from using a term of art from time to time. That’s fine. Just be judicious. Don’t add terms simply to sound more lawyerly. And if you’re writing for an audience outside your practice area or for an audience of non-lawyer professionals, be sure to define any legal terms that you do use. Even the most common Law and Order: SVU terms, like voir dire, can be confusing for a non-legal audience.
  • Remember this acronym: AAYE. It stands for Acronyms Are Your Enemy. Acronyms are like a stop sign in copy. Unless it’s an abbreviation whose meaning is embedded in the culture (like the FBI or the CIA), readers will pause to try to remember what the letters signify. You might get away with using one or two sparingly, but try to do so only when absolutely necessary. Reading is a visual experience, and no one enjoys perusing a piece of copy with a mysterious acronym in every other sentence.
  • Don’t waste your reader’s time. I’m borrowing here from Josh Bernoff’s excellent (and, shall we say, to the point) book Writing Without Bullshit. Bernoff writes:

I call it the Iron Imperative: Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. That couldn’t be simpler. And yet everything that’s wrong with the way business people write today stems from ignoring this principle.

Bernoff’s premise is that the business world is drowning in written garbage. From email inboxes, to corporate communications, to websites, most of what we read is, in his words, “impenetrable and incomprehensible.” He posits that the people who write clearly, candidly and with integrity are the ones who are most likely to get ahead. “If you have good ideas and express them well in writing,” Bernoff says, “you’ll get credit for those ideas and their clarity.”

I think Bernoff is right. He even offers a math problem for writers to consider: Meaning ratio = meaningful words/total words. Count the number of words that are meaningful in a piece of writing – extracting words like “very” or “leading” or any of the jargon I used in the first paragraph. Divide by your total word count. This will give you a percentage of meaningful words. Obviously, you want every word to be meaningful. Bernoff advises: “A passage with a meaning ratio of 80% is readable. But once you get below 70%, you’re in bullshit territory.”

This isn’t easy. You’re influenced by what’s around you. Much of what we read on the web is, frankly, jargon-laden and awful. And many marketers and lawyers are surrounded by colleagues I call “jargon-istas” – my own bit of jargon for anti-clarity warriors who always seem armed with a never-ending array of obscure (and obscuring) terms. Anyone who has sat through a corporate presentation or worked with a consultant for any stretch of time knows what I’m talking about. These are the kind of people who have turned the verb “learning” into a plural noun, “learnings,” as in: “We gleaned several new learnings from this study.” Shoot. Me. Now.

A steady diet of their language can erode even the clearest writer’s skills. The best defense in these cases is a good offense: Ask the jargonista to define unclear terms and to stop using the ones that are particularly incomprehensible.

I’m not arguing for perfection here. We’re all going to use terms that are common to our businesses. Despite my aversion to business speak, I do this. (Ask me about content curation and thought leadership, for example.) It’s fine in very small doses, and if you’re clear about what you mean. Too often, however, business and legal babble is offered without explanation. And when that happens, to quote an old Gloria Estefan ballad, “the words get in the way.”

If you’d like to learn more about how Good2bSocial and the Legal Writers Bureau can help you create clear, concise and effective writing for your firm, please contact us.

The Legal Writers Bureau