By Theodore L. Blumberg, Owlworks, the imprint of The Archangul Foundation of Baltimore, Md. 59 pages, $7.95
Gentle Reader, can you spare an hour or so to learn how to be a better legal writer? If you can, then “The Seven Deadly Sins of Legal Writing” is highly recommended.
From the earliest days of our legal education we lawyers are exposed to a strange language known as legalese, a tongue most laypersons find unintelligible. Further, while our writing instructors in law school bade us write clearly, the actual practice of law frequently pressures us to write long compound sentences in the passive voice that manage to say everything and nothing at the same time.
Theodore Blumberg, the author of “The Seven Deadly Sins,” understands this. He is clearly a practicing lawyer who knows English literature as well as the rules of grammar. He patiently explains that there is no rule of law that compels writing legalese, only bad habits that have been passed down from partner to associate, generation to generation.
The “Sins” are only the worst bad habits of lawyerly writing; by concentrating on only seven, Blumberg makes his book far more likely to be read than if it were a complete treatise. The author knows his audience and as a result “Sins” is a short, readable book written in clear, straightforward prose worthy of George Orwell. The book is pamphlet-size and can be carried in a coat pocket.
Giving away all the “sins” in this review would be akin to revealing the murderer in a mystery novel, but naming only one is “fair comment.” Lawyers over-use adverbs. Blumberg demonstrates this by quoting a well-written passage from a J.D. Salinger short story and then demolishing it by injecting adverbs the way a lawyer would in a brief. The result is a fine bit of legal humor. ( Aside: after I read this book I reviewed an adversary’s brief and saw that he began his paragraphs with words like “Additionally,” “Significantly,” “Predictably,” and “Minimally,” – and that was only in the Statement of Facts.)
One point that the author briefly raises, but does not fully explore, is the sad fact that our profession sometimes requires us to write in legalese, i.e., when we want to leave ourselves “wiggle room” in an agreement. I only hope the author writes more on this topic; it deserves further study.
At the end of “Sins” are useful exercises to reinforce what the reader has learned. While it seems like sacrilege to rewrite a passage of Cardozo’s “The Nature of the Judicial Process” to make it more direct, there is a purpose: before one can be a poet, one must know how to write prose. There is also a hilarious parody of contract language from “Tristram Shandy” and an excellent guide to further reading.
This review promised that “The Seven Deadly Sins” could start the Gentle Reader on the path to being a good legal writer. It did not promise to actually make him one because no single book could possibly do that. Years of hard work and endless writing and rewriting are necessary before anyone can become an accomplished author. What “The Seven Deadly Sins” does is shake the complacency of the modern attorney with regard to his writing and then show it is possible to do better. That is a beginning.
William B. Stock is appellate counsel to Cheven, Keely & Hatzis.