A 'Lesson' learned

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Noted legal author ventures into uncharted book waters

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

For a semi-retired law professor who spent the bulk of his career in front of a classroom, Joe Kimble admitted he was on “pins and needles” last month as he appeared before a particularly discerning group of students.

A professor emeritus at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, Kimble is the author of three books that tout the value of plain language in public communication, especially for those in the legal profession who are enamored with the “fog of legalese.”
The books have been widely praised by critics, some of whom have called Kimble a “virtuoso writer and editor” and a “master of the craft.”

Such praise, however, meant little when Kimble returned to his hometown of Linden last month to unveil his latest book, first at two school visits and later at a fund-raiser for the local historical society. His new literary effort, after all, is a departure from his earlier works in terms of the targeted audience.

In this case, kids, especially those in the first through fifth grades, who by most accounts can be a tough sell when it comes to their book tastes.

The challenge can be daunting for first-time children’s authors like Kimble, who on that second Tuesday in November was rolling out a 32-page opus titled, “Mr. Mouthful Learns His Lesson.” His audience that afternoon was some 150 third-graders, divided into two groups of wide-eyed students who sometimes come without any filters.

“I’m a novice when it comes to children’s books,” Kimble said, “so I was nervous going into the presentations, asking myself, ‘Is this going to bomb?’ Fortunately, it did not. The students seemed to really enjoy the book, laughing in all the right places and raising their hands to answer my questions. It was heartening to see their reaction and I breathed a sigh of relief when it was over. It turned out to be great fun.”

The book, illustrated by Kerry Bell, revolves around the “misadventures of Mr. Mouthful,” a nattily dressed “windbag whose highfalutin talk causes trouble and confusion for kids,” according to Kimble.

“He loves big words but doesn’t understand that plain words are usually best in everyday life,” Kimble said of his lead character. “It’s good to have a big vocabulary; it’s another thing to go around showing it off.”

That message, of course, is at the heart of Kimble’s entire body of work, which includes “Lifting the Fog of Legalese,” “Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please,” and his newest book “Seeing Through Legalese.” The trilogy serves as evidence of Kimble’s quest to trumpet the cause of clarity and simplicity in legal expression.

Journalists look to “Strunk & White” for the “Elements of Style,” while lawyers would be wise to turn to Kimble for guidance in effectively making their legal point. For nearly 30 years, Kimble has served as editor of the “Plain Language” column in the Michigan Bar Journal, and twice has won the coveted 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.

In 2007, he won the first Plain Language Association International Award for being a “champion, leader, and visionary in the international plain language field.” Kimble, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, has lectured on writing to legal organizations in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Despite his best efforts, Kimble acknowledged “there is a long way to go” in the plain language movement. “Let’s just say that it remains an uphill climb,” Kimble said in an understated way.
 

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