Plain and simple: Professors see value of clarity, conciseness

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

The plain language movement is alive and well at Cooley Law School. Under the capable leadership of Joseph Kimble (former department chair) and Mark Cooney (current department chair), professors from the Research and Writing Department teach the next generation of attorneys the value of clear and concise writing. They also speak on the topic of plain language to their colleagues across the U.S.

For his work on redrafting the Federal Rules of Evidence, Kimble recently earned his second Burton Award for Legal Achievement, specifically, the Reform in Law Award. He received his first Burton Award in 2007 for his part in redrafting the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The only Michigan attorney to twice receive these prestigious national awards, Kimble has been committed to the plain language movement for much of his career.

Kimble teaches Advanced Research & Writing at Cooley's Lansing campus. He has published the book "Lifting the Fog of Legalese: Essays on Plain Language," and he has served as editor in chief of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing since 2001 and as editor of the "Plain Language" column in the Michigan Bar Journal since 1988. He also writes for both publications.

"I've always been interested in language and writing," says Kimble, who was an English major in his undergraduate days. "I wrote a million papers--or so it seemed--in high school and college. But my interest in plain legal language arose after completing law school. I tell the story in my new book, 'Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government, and Law.'"

Kimble's story takes the reader back to the 1970s, when he was assigned to work on drafting court rules for the Michigan Supreme Court. Although it had never dawned on him in law school, he came to realize that something was seriously wrong with most legal writing and drafting.

"Changes are necessary because the traditional style drives readers crazy. Study after study shows that even legal readers--judges and lawyers--strongly prefer plain language to legalese. Unfortunately, some lawyers still believe in myths, like the myth that plain language is not precise or legally accurate--when it's actually more precise than legalese."

Kimble presented on the benefits of plain language at the Clarity 2012 Conference held in Washington, D.C. in May. He spoke about the 50 case studies he summarizes in "Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please" that show how plain language could save business and government billions of dollars.

"Why?" Kimble asks, then answers. "Because readers understand the material better and faster, make fewer mistakes, have fewer questions, and are left feeling more confident and more satisfied. I'd say that plain language could even help to restore faith in public institutions."

Professor Mark Cooney teaches the Research & Writing and Advanced Writing classes at Cooley's Ann Arbor campus. Cooney became interested in the movement to streamline legal writing even before attending law school.

"While working at a large firm the summer before I started law school, I happened on an office memo that an experienced associate had written for the firm's senior partner. I was struck by how clear it was. Even though the associate was writing to one of the most experienced litigators in the state, he wrote the memo in a way that simplified complex ideas and made them so accessible that even I--a layperson at the time--could grasp the meaning with ease," says Cooney. "That planted a seed that only grew when I went off to law school, and it has never stopped growing."

Cooney credits his own Research & Writing professor at Cooley, F. Georgann Wing, for confirming the value of plain language.

"She was wonderful and taught so effortlessly. I literally built my career on what Ann taught me," he says.

When he began practicing law, Cooney was favorably impressed by his partners' demand for plain language.

"It's a myth that the preference for plain language is a generational thing--that all the 'old school' lawyers prefer the stuffy style and only 'new' lawyers are willing to strive for clarity. Far from it. Clarity is a mentality, not a byproduct of a lawyer's age or era."

As a presenter at the Legal Writing Institute Conference held in Palm Desert, Calif. in May, Cooney spoke to an audience of new writing professors.

"I offered them practical tips for coping with some of the issues that are bound to crop up, in or out of the classroom. I hope my presentation will help them anticipate potential pitfalls and give them ideas on what steps they might take now to ensure their teaching success."

Cooney's colleague Brad Charles also spoke at the Legal Writing Institute Conference.

"Toree Randall and I presented on teaching law students a research process that transcends media. Many law schools teach students to teach in a certain format--books, for instance. But with smart phones and tablets--and who knows what next--taking over, students need a process that will work regardless of the medium," says Charles.

The video that Charles and Randall created for their presentation may be accessed at www.youtube. com/watch?v= 0qN1QXetcmk &feature =colike. The presentation shows two fictional characters, "Sarah Strategy" and "Willy Nilly," as they model opposing styles of conducting legal research.

Charles first became interested in the plain-English movement while clerking for Judge Paul Chamberlain of the 21st District Court in Isabella County.

"In the two years I was with that court, I read over 2,000 attorney briefs. Maybe 100 of them were worth anything to the court. I remember thinking, 'Boy, if I ever have the chance to teach law students how to write, they'd never hear the end of it from me.'"

Professor Kimble sums up the department's thinking on the topic--succinctly, of course.

"All writers--even the best ones--benefit from good editing."

Published: Mon, Jun 25, 2012

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