This past week I reviewed a pair of trusts for a couple and had to shake my head in disgust. All of the horrible things my clients say about the legalese in their documents was readily apparent in these trusts created by a law firm in New York City. Typically I have to defend the legal language in documents because while legalese is hard for the non-attorney to sort through and it sounds convoluted, it is actually very precise and eliminates loopholes.

Not here. This sounded like it was written by Yoda on meth. Sections referred back to other sections so frequently that it was a legal jigsaw puzzle to be put together just to read a paragraph or two in context. In addition, instead of simply spelling out things in full, it kept referencing sections of the U.S. Tax Code so vaguely that only tax experts would have the slightest idea what was going on. In other words, only people with 20 years experience in dealing with the tax code every day would have even the slightest clue what the document meant.

Here is what legalese in a well-drafted legal document should actually do:

  • Convey the intended meaning of the section in as close to plain English as possible while cutting out loopholes. This still may be initially confusing for non-attorneys, but reading it through and thinking about it should most people to understand what is meant in the legal document.
  • Organize sections so reading from each page to the next gives the reader a clearer understanding of the whole document. Constant references to specifically identified people, laws, schedules, or items in other sections keeps people flipping pages and is unnecessary.
  • Even in cutting out loopholes, if there are more than 5 commas per sentence and it only makes the sentence more confusing, there is probably a better way to write it. With that said, I have drafted many sentences that take up half a page and may contain so many listed items that it would have 15 commas separating them, but they were still paragraphs that were easy to read.

Finally, if you can read the sentence while doing an impersonation of Jedi Master Yoda from Star Wars and it sounds like something he would say, then take the sentence back to the drawing board.

And so for the writers and attorneys out there who think big words and convoluted sentence structure will make you sound smarter, keep this in mind:

“If understand your writing people cannot, then your ideas in the first place not worth reading they were.”