Michael Dillon, Adobe general counsel (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)
SAN FRANCISCO — Adobe Systems Inc. is taking a stand in the war against legalese:
Do write in short sentences. Don’t use passive voice. And for heaven’s sake, stay away from leaden language like aforementioned, hereinbefore and pari passu. Adobe has spent three years developing its rules for legal writing and on Wednesday released a 27-page style guide, in a move general counsel Michael Dillon hopes will help “change the brand of the profession.”
The handbook, meant to teach lawyers to write more clearly for their own department and for business partners, covers topics including sentence length, margin spacing and the most legible typefaces for English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.
The guide is posted on Adobe’s website and is free for anyone to share or download. “Lawyers are trained in law school to write in a certain style that favors complexity over simplicity,” Dillon said. “We can better support our business if we write differently. Communication is the main tool for attorneys.”
Dillon said he was inspired to release the guide because the problems it addresses aren’t unique to Adobe. “Less jargon makes everyone happy by making our internal and external communications easier to understand,” the company’s website states.
Adobe has 48 offices in 31 countries and roughly 110 lawyers. It has acquired more than 40 companies since its founding in 1982. All of that requires a lot of legal paperwork.
About three years ago, the legal department brought in Bryan Gardner, author of “Legal Writing in Plain English,” for some coaching. The training helped, but a larger problem remained.
“We realized this wasn’t about us individually writing in a more simplified manner for greater clarity,” Dillon said. “It was more about how to do that consistently so we’re speaking with one voice.”
The legal department assigned a task force of about six lawyers to craft an official style guide. Led by an attorney in Singapore, the project team completed a draft in about six months. The department began using it and saw immediate results.
The licensing agreement for one of Adobe’s Creative Cloud services—Behance—was previously 47 pages long. Following its new guidelines, the legal department shortened it to 15 pages.
Employee policies and procedures were rewritten to be more engaging, Dillon said. “We can’t expect employees to adhere to those procedures if the way our documents are written is in an inaccessible way,” Dillon said.
Clear writing can also increase sales by making agreements shorter and easier to understand. Negotiations are better-informed and even translation costs get pared down, Dillon said. He said having a uniform template for most legal forms also streamlines the typical “cut-and-paste” method lawyers use to draft new documents. The guide instructs lawyers to use bold type sparingly, for emphasis or to highlight definitions or disclaimers. Underlined text is reserved for web links.
Other style edicts: Abbreviate the month when writing dates. Spell out numbers under 11. Lists should only include common items, so no pairing up “cake,” “milk” and “Shakespeare.” Also, take out needless words and remove archaic language. On the hit list: hereby, as to, in lieu of, set forth. The guide pulls from 11 other texts on clear legal writing, including three by Gardner.
Dillon said a certain Will Rogers quote always comes to mind when he thinks about why the style guide is needed. “The minute you read something and you can’t understand it, you can almost be sure that it was drawn up by a lawyer.”
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