Shall I Compare Thee to a Summary Judgment?
It’s become an article of faith that lawyers are poor writers. That isn’t really fair. Lawyers are intelligent, after all; they don’t lack for vocabulary; they’re grammatically sound (most of the time); and they can express highly complex regulations and concepts in just a few (admittedly dense) paragraphs.
The problem is not with lawyers’ writing, I think; the problem lies with lawyers’ tendency to overwrite. Most lawyers are perfectionists who believe that comprehensiveness is next to godliness; they never leave anything out because they fear that a single omission will be the one upon which the matter turns.
Ask a lawyer for a tune and she’ll give you a symphony. Ask him for a snack and he’ll bring you a three-course meal. If you are in the mildest doubt about this, turn now and pick up the nearest contract you can find, and read every word out loud until you find it annoying.
Back already? Okay.
Today’s idea will sound summertime-frivolous at best, but I urge you to consider it.
Get Your Lawyers to Write Poetry
Specifically, get them to write legal poetry.
Have your lawyers share, once a week, a single poetic expression of legal information. They must write a poem, as short or as long as they wish, that summarizes an important case in their area of practice or expresses practical legal advice for clients. Collect these poems for three months, then publish the collection with appropriate imagery as a small booklet or PDF file, giving copies to all your clients.
The poetic form can be anything the lawyers want.
It can be iambic pentameter:
“Class actions can’t proceed,” the high court found,
“Without an issue common to the class.”
They couldn’t find a unifying ground
Of bias, so they gave Wal-Mart a pass.
It can be a limerick:
A clever young Briton named Max
Thought he lived in a haven for tax.
But some new legislation
Brought much aggravation;
Our update here has all the facts.
It can be a haiku:
The breeze may be free
But you still need a license
For your wind turbine.
And it can be schoolyard doggerel:
If your will don’t have a witness
It’ll fail the test for fitness.
Yes, of course, this is kind of silly. But it’s also kind of fun. And it has a serious purpose: training lawyers to say what they need to say as concisely and effectively as they can. Poetry is condensed prose, expressed lightly and precisely, so that the underlying truth can be more effectively shared. Think your clients could benefit from some of that?
There probably aren’t many Coleridges and Sandburgs at your firm. But I’ll bet there are more than you think. Show off your hidden lyricism, and let your clients be impressed with your courage, originality and wit. Maybe you’re a poet, and you don’t know it.
(With thanks to Matt Homann for the original inspiration.)
Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International, a senior consultant with Stem Legal, and a blogger at Law21: Dispatches from a Legal Profession on the Brink.