Taking the Legal Out of Legalese

“The minute you read something that you can’t understand, you can almost be sure that it was drawn up by a lawyer. ”― Will Rogers

The famed American humorist, Will Rogers, was almost certainly going for the laugh when he uttered those words. But they ring true. The fact is that for centuries, the legal profession has been known for its redundant and ambiguous style of writing. For example, in Cervantes’ 17th century novel, Don Quixote cautions, “But do not give it to a lawyer’s clerk to write, for they use a legal hand that Satan himself will not understand.”

The criticism is well-placed. Frequently, I find myself reading a legal document in my personal life — a mortgage, a car lease, a waiver for a child’s school activity — and thinking: “I’m an experienced attorney, and I have no idea what this means.”

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Mumbo jumbo concept.

In the Adobe legal department, we spend a lot of time discussing our brand. This may sound like a strange area of focus for an in-house legal function; however, having a positive brand is not just a reflection of success — it enables success.
Unfortunately, the brand of the legal profession is tainted by the perception that our inkwells are filled with obfuscation. A few years ago, our legal team at Adobe recognized that we have been part of the problem and decided to change things. It has been no small undertaking. As you might expect for a global company with more than three decades of history, we have a great deal of work to do. But, we are making real progress in rewriting our agreements, policies and training materials to ensure that they are models of clarity and simplicity.

We started this undertaking by identifying a small team of attorneys who are passionate about effective writing. (We identified them by whispering the word “shall” and noting whether they responded with an involuntary twitch.) We then asked them to work collaboratively to create a document that would reflect our collective agreement on how we write. The result is something we call the Adobe Legal Department Style Guide (super sexy title, I know). It’s become the core of how we communicate and is integrated in regular trainings and department communications, as well as being part of the process for new hires.

The result of these efforts have been documents that are much more understandable with improved formats that are easier to digest and provide consistency in format and style regardless of who drafted the documents. Better yet, this work has helped us save money — shorter contracts mean less money spent on translation. For global companies these savings can be significant. But, perhaps, the biggest benefit of this work has been a much more positive brand in the eyes of our customers and internal clients.

Now we’d like to help others do the same thing within their organizations. To this end, we are releasing the Adobe Legal Department Style Guide under a Creative Commons license so that other legal professionals can use it as the basis of similar efforts. It’s free and you are welcome to enhance and change it to best suit your department or organization’s needs (but please provide attribution — it’s a small way of showing thanks to the team that created it).

You can go to the Adobe Legal home page to download your PDF of the Guide. Take a look at it and let us know what you think.

Hopefully, it can be a start to ensuring that the Will Rogers of the future run out of material.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Taking the Legal Out of Legalese

  1. Rian Jorgensen

    Mr. Dillon, Thanks to you and your team for an excellent document. As a long-time “shall-twitcher” and Bryan Garner fan, I ate this up, and will be referring to it (and recommending it) heavily in the future I’m sure.

    I do have one question / criticism though: Why is Justified Alignment recommended? Given how distracting text inevitably appears under certain circumstances with this function on (see the sentence beginning “Have you defined anything…” on Page 8 of the Style Guide for Exhibit 1-A), I was surprised.

    I’m firmly in the “continuity of spacing between words plus white space trumps uniform paragraphs” camp, but am interested to hear how and why your team came to the opposite conclusion.

    Again, thanks and congratulations on this terrific guide.

    Rian Jorgensen

  2. Hi Mike,
    Just like to say thanks for this Legal Writing Style Guide. We are doing a total revamp of processes and documentation around R&D procurement and investment, so timing is perfect.
    Cheers James

  3. U. Dick

    You got the rock rolling keep it going.

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