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Bar News - August 14, 2009

Book Review: Preparing Legal Documents Non-lawyers Can Read and Understand by Wayne Schiess, ABA Press, 2008


This easy-to-read book teaches lawyers how to write for a non-legal audience. It opens with an epigraph that drives home the point of the book:

There’s an old story told by some who preach about using plain English: A woman approached the elevator in a fancy hotel and asked the attendant, "Is this elevator ascending or descending?" "I’m sorry ma’am, but you’ll have to ask at the front desk about that," he replied. Then he called out, "Going up!" This story supports the message Schiess emphasizes throughout: good legal writing communicates ideas by using words its audience understands. Through commentary and real-world examples, the author makes a compelling case for why purposeful word choice, good organization, and visual layout are essential to creating readable documents for today’s non-lawyer audiences.

Chapter 1, "Forms and a Plain-Drafting Process," asserts that most forms are outdated and that many "contain dreadful legalese" and "archaic word usage." The author proposes a five-step process for converting a standard form to plain English, and then applies it to a class action notice typically sent to ordinary citizens. The result is striking. In a matter of pages, Schiess takes the class action notice, critiques its layout, organization, sentence structure, and word choice, and converts it – without affecting its legal content – into a document most people with a high school education would be able to read and understand. The chapters that follow break down each of the concepts employed in editing the notice into smaller components.

What sets this book apart from others in its genre is that it implicitly considers and addresses how people read in today’s world. Electronic media, cell phone text messaging, e-mail, and tools like Facebook and Twitter have fundamentally changed how our culture accesses and absorbs information through the written word. More than ever, non-lawyers quickly skim text, looking for point headings and visual signposts for a general idea of what they are looking at. Such cursory reading often entirely supplants reading a document from start to finish. Schiess essentially takes the position that we can and must accommodate this type of reading by producing documents that are easier to understand, and that it is possible to do this without compromising content or legal soundness.

My favorite part of this book was its discussion of some simple tools that help a lawyer zero in on ways to increase the readability of a document. For example, Chapter 2 discusses the use of different fonts. Schiess points out that "serifed" fonts, such as Times New Roman and Georgia, are easier to read on paper because of the small extensions at the end of each stroke that permit the eye to pick up on letter distinctions more quickly. "Sans serif" fonts, such as Arial and Tahoma, do not have the small extensions at the end of each stroke. These fonts are easier to read on a computer screen because screen resolutions make the extensions harder to see. Thus, he advises, if you know your document will be read primarily on a screen, use a sans serif font.

Another simple tool is discussed in Chapter 10, "Using Readability Tests." Microsoft Word can assess the "readability statistics" of your document. (Go to Tools > Spelling and Grammar > Options, then check the box "show readability statistics.") The software uses the Flesch Readability Scale, which scores your average sentence and word length from zero to 100, a score of fifty or higher being "pretty good," according to the author. Of course, Schiess cautions that use of the Flesch Scale cannot help if you do not already know how to write sensibly. He uses the example of the sentence "Issued order the judge an." It scores well on the Flesch scale, but makes no sense. The scale is simply a word and syllable counter. However, readability scales may give you a quick, objective assessment of whether your documents use sentences that may be too wordy.

Not only is this book a great shelf reference for lawyers, it would also be a good supplement to any law school legal writing curriculum. In short, I recommend this book for every lawyer and law student. My copy has already earned a special spot on my bookshelf between the dictionaries and the New Hampshire Court Rules Annotated.

Sarah Katz earned her J.D., Magna Cum Laude, from Vermont Law School in 2008. She is currently a law clerk to the Hon. John T. Broderick, Jr., Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

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