Plain English--Professor lifts the fog of legalese

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

"Writing is agony, and it's lonely, but having written is a great pleasure - if you think the work is any good."

That's the word from Cooley Law School Professor Joseph Kimble, editor in chief of "The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing," longtime editor of the "Plain Language" column in the Michigan Bar Journal, and author of "Lifting the Fog of Legalese: Essays on Plain Language" and a forthcoming book, "Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please."

"The intellectual battle is over. The myths about plain language - including the myth that it's not precise or accurate - have been dispelled," he says. "There is strong empirical evidence that judges, other lawyers, and clients want to read plain language. Of course they do - although lawyers may forget that when they sit down to write. And the costs of poor communication in business, government, and law are enormous. The new book will include lots of case studies making that point."

Kimble is a past president of the international organization Clarity, served as executive director of Scribes (the American Society of Legal Writers), is a founding director of the Center for Plain Language, and was on the board of the Legal Writing Institute.

He also served as a drafting consultant to the Sixth Circuit Committee on Pattern Jury Instructions and the Michigan Committee on Standard Criminal Jury Instructions, and now serves as the drafting consultant to the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Judicial Conference of the United States. He has twice won a prestigious Burton Award for Reform in Law - in 2007 for his work on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and in 2011 for his work on the Federal Rules of Evidence.

"It's certainly a highlight of my career," he says. "I could never have imagined that I'd be redrafting the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence. Ten years of work. It was hard, intense, occasionally frustrating, but ultimately worth the loss of my youth. The new rules are certainly not perfect, but the reception has been very positive."

In 2000, Kimble was named a "Plain English Champion" by the Plain English Campaign, in England, one of the first persons to receive that award. In 2007, he won the first Plain Language Association International Award for being a "champion, leader, and visionary in the international plain-language field." In 2010, he won the award from the Section on Legal Writing, Reasoning, and Research of the Association of American Law Schools.

He has lectured on writing to legal organizations in the United States, Canada, Europe, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

"There's satisfaction in being involved in the good fight for plain language - liberating lawyers, as it were. I spent a sabbatical in Sydney at the University of Sydney. Took the ferry each day under the Harbour Bridge, docked at Circular Quay next to the Opera House, and walked through the city to the university. A spectacular place."

After receiving a bachelor's degree in English from Amherst College, Kimble earned his law degree from the University of Michigan.

"Law seemed verbal and analytical, and I thought that if I had any strong suits, those were it," he says. "The actual studying wasn't a thrill, but I loved Ann Arbor, the times, and the impressive feel and look of the law school. And the profs were outstanding, of course."

He was a staff attorney for the Michigan Supreme Court and the Michigan Court of Appeals.

"At the Supreme Court, I worked on drafting court rules, and that gave rise to a lifelong interest in clear writing and plain language. It started when I discovered Reed Dickerson's book 'The Fundamentals of Legal Drafting.'"

He later practiced law in Flint, focusing on insurance defense and employment law. He joined the Cooley faculty full time in 1984 after teaching as an adjunct professor, and has taught Research & Writing and Advanced Research & Writing. He also developed the original course for Introduction to Law I.

"I enjoy seeing the instruction take hold - and the improvement in students' writing," he says. "Working here is a perfect fit for someone who loves writing and teaching writing. Cooley takes seriously the importance of writing to law practice. It was the first law school to put its writing teachers on tenure-track. And it has always supported my own work and the message I'm trying to spread."

In his leisure time, Kimble enjoys running, doing yoga, playing basketball, and is also a big blues fan.

"I collect a little blues and rock art, some of which is displayed on the sixth floor of the Cooley Center in Lansing."

Published: Thu, Dec 22, 2011