I’ll never forget the time a senior lawyer complained that my writing was easy to understand. He thought I should “write like a lawyer.”

Why is poor legal writing so prevalent? I’ve long believed that fear is a key reason:

Many lawyers who are capable of writing clearly fear that clients would be less willing to pay large fees work product not wrapped in mysterious and incomprehensible legal jargon. If it’s easy to understand, clients may justifiably wonder why they should be paying through the nose for it, right?

No doubt lack of writing skill is another barrier. Time pressure is another culprit. However, many lawyers who could do better and have the time to do are equally guilty. The “plain English” movement is doomed to limited success until lawyers decide it will improve, or at least not worsen their bottom line.

I continue to believe (or at least hope) that good writing should be more sellable, not less. A recent study suggests that while poor lawyer writing is indeed a giant problem, at least it  is theoretically fixable. H/T to the estimable Ron Friedmann for the link:

A research paper that says contracts are hard for people to understand because of their poor writing, rather than use of legal terms, has been awarded the Ig Nobel prize for literature.

The prestigious-yet-tongue-in-cheek awards are made for improbable research projects that at first glance appear ridiculous – blatantly obvious or absurdly obscure − but in fact conceal a genuine thought-provoking purpose.

The sought-after awards, which receive some 9,000 nominations each year, are presented by actual Nobel Prize winners.

The three authors of the contracts paper – specialists in language and cognition, although one was also a lawyer – were cited for analysing what makes legal documents “unnecessarily difficult to understand”.

They found: “Contracts, such as online terms of service agreements, are at once ubiquitous and impenetrable, read by virtually everyone yet understood by seemingly no one, except lawyers.”