Black letter law

Magna Carta

"But what does 'Magna Carta' actually mean?"

I don’t care what you think: I like several lawyers. They can be witty, interesting people. They hold conferences in nice hotels and sometimes ask me to speak. Usually they’re polite afterwards. And get lawyers talking about something that isn’t the law, and often they are funny and clever.

Also, for a jobbing freelance, law firms pay well and usually have excellent biscuits when you visit them. I went for a meeting in one firm’s office and chef in a tall hat came to ask me what I wanted for lunch. Another firm has by far the best pencils I have ever used in its meeting rooms (at least it did until they left me alone for five minutes).

But if you’re editing copy for them, they don’t half make you earn the money. Lawyers write like badly-programmed jargonbots. Here’s a paragraph that I was asked to fix up a while ago for a business magazine:

Section 217 of the Companies Act 2006 provides that (except in the case of a bona fide termination payment) it is unlawful for a company to make payment to any of its directors by way of compensation for loss of office, or as consideration for or in connection with their retirement from office, without particulars of the proposed payment (including its amount) being disclosed to, and approved by ordinary resolution of, the members of the company.

No, I don’t either.

I’ve learned that it is basically pointless offering advice to lawyers on how to write like a journalist. Maybe that is because they’re earning ten times as much as me, so it’s understandable if they don’t really see an urgent need to adapt to my way of thinking. It’s more useful for me to pass on a few tips on how the rest of us can write like a lawyer:

1. If you don’t want to be easily understood, Latin is always better than English. When writing for a general reader I can tell you a priori that inter alia it’s your erga omnes right to stick in a few phrases in a language that they don’t understand, just so they know who’s the daddy. After all, nulla poena sine lege. I have no idea what I’ve just typed.

2. Qualify every statement no matter how meaningless. A rule of thumb: never use less than four clauses in each sentence, and don’t use full stops when there are perfectly good commas going to waste. If you used short sentences then people would be able to read your article out loud to peasants; and then poor illiterate people would understand your argument and your status will be forever compromised.

3. Ultimately, sit on the fence. Real advice has to be paid for, so make anything written for non-payers look like you’re going to help them right up to the last sentence – then don’t. Useful final-paragraph phrases for appearing to be helpful while being no bloody use at all include telling us that we should keep a watching brief rather than actually do anything, or that we might also give careful consideration to something you haven’t previously mentioned, or that we could usefully keep abreast of whatever it is that you’re supposed to have made us abreast of in the preceding six paragraphs. Not many people will complain, because few of them will have made it this far anyway.

4. Use the passive voice where at all possible. It will be seen that this may possess utility. Paragraphs should be drawn up by the lawyers concerned only after careful consideration of this advice. Articles composed in this fashion will be credited with education and poshness – by other lawyers, anyway. Other people ask why you are writing in this weird way. Ignore them! Or should I say: endeavour to ensure that they are ignored.

5. Favour obsolete words. Keep a stock of aforementioneds, hereinafters, forthwiths and herebys, and use them to give your prose the authentic feel of the 18th century.

6. Most important: never take advice on this subject from people who are not lawyers.

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