Law: Learning to write with clarity: Fiona Bawdon meets Mark Adler, a solicitor who aims to simplify legal language

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Mark Adler is a solicitor who boasts about not understanding much of the work that lands on his desk.

During a recent in-house training session for a law firm in Birmingham, Mr Adler tells his audience about his inability to advise a particular client. 'He came to me saying a boundary wall was falling down and asking was it his responsibility? After spending 20 minutes looking at his lease, I said to him: 'I haven't the faintest idea.' '

The assembled group of commercial and litigation solicitors are not surprised at Mr Adler's unlawyerly candour. This is what they have come to hear.

As well as running his practice in Surbiton, Surrey, Mr Adler is chairman of Clarity, an organisation that campaigns to simplify legal language. This particular lease was so bad, he tells the group, that he ran it as a competition in Clarity's journal, offering a prize to anyone who could explain what it meant. There were no entrants.

Mr Adler had been invited by Needham & James to show its lawyers how to avoid this kind of legal gobbledegook. Barry Doherty, the Needham & James solicitor who organised the seminar, says that lawyers are under increasing pressure from clients to use plain English.

Not that Clarity's campaign against legal jargon is new. The group has been going for 10 years. In the UK, its membership has a respectable 243 solicitors and 27 barristers. It also has allies in high places.

The Vice Chancellor, Sir Donald Nicholls, told this year's Law Society conference that if he could have one wish, it would be to burn all three volumes of the White Book. 'I'd have the rules rewritten in English, in a form that anyone can understand,' he said. That way, consumers of the legal system might actually understand what was going on, he added, to loud applause from delegates.

But despite such public displays of support for plain English, Mr Adler insists that, in private, many lawyers still cling to the security blanket of impenetrable prose. He tells the seminar of a shop lease he came across in which two lines didn't seem to fit; the offending sentence was like 'a train with an engine at both ends', he says. 'The lawyer working for the landlord said he didn't know what it meant but it must be correct because big companies accepted the lease and anyway, it was drafted by an experienced partner,' Mr Adler says.

'I said, 'humour me. Tell me what it means'.' A few days later the hapless lawyer came back, this time agreeing that the sentence did not make any sense. So much for the myth that legalese is finely honed, Mr Adler adds.

The longer and woollier a document, the harder it is to spot what would otherwise be obvious errors. 'We all make mistakes. Lawyers probably make more than average because they work under such pressure. If you're writing five times as much as you need to, the chances are you'll make five times as many mistakes,' he says.

He gives the group a set of rules to follow. Documents should be written using short, rather than long words, in the active rather than the passive, and in the present rather than the future tense. 'Clients want to know what the rent is, not what the rent shall be,' he says. Repetition, redundant words, over-emphasis and phony jargon should all be expunged.

'My rule of thumb is that if an expression has no meaning and is used only by lawyers, there must be a preferable alternative,' says Mr Adler.

A new paragraph should be used for each new subject, whereas 'most lawyers draft as if paragraph breaks were arbitrary and generally to be avoided.' They also tend to treat punctuation as an optional extra. 'It's only lawyers who don't punctuate. Everyone else finds punctuation helpful, which should give you a clue.'

According to Mr Adler, in an otherwise punctuation-free document, often the only mark put in by a lawyer is that most 'otiose piece of punctuation, the colon plus dash' (:- ).

Lawyers should also 'be very careful of floating modifiers' - sentences within sentences - which only serve to confuse. 'Sometimes, it's difficult to know if something is ambiguous or just gibberish,' adds Mr Adler.

The group is given a set of exercises, translating legalese into plain English using Mr Adler's rules. In just a few minutes, a convoluted and impenetrable 197-word developers' form of transfer has shrunk to a 62-word paragraph, understandable by any lay person.

Not everyone in the group is convinced, however, by all the suggestions. 'Why is 'buyer' better than 'purchaser'? I can't see the difference,' says one. Her colleague disagrees. 'I can understand why people might have difficulty with terms like 'vendor',' she says. 'What's wrong with vendee?' chips in another, less helpfully.

What should they do if clients prefer the more traditional style? 'Surely it's a case of who pays the piper,' says one solicitor (ignoring the exhortation to avoid cliches). Some clients simply don't like plain English, he continues. 'I've never met any,' Mr Adler says briskly. 'Clients love plain English. It's lawyers who don't'

By now, some in the group have got the hang of things and are starting to enjoy themselves. They accuse Mr Adler of not following some of his own rules. One complains that the typeface he had used in a supposedly user-friendly version of a lease is hard to read.

Another says Mr Adler's use of 'conduit' is no better than the original term 'service installations'. Clients wouldn't understand either, she says. 'It would be much better just to spell out what it means: sewers, drains, channels, pipes, watercourses and gutters.'

Mr Adler is used to criticism in one form or another over his guidelines for good writing. 'Somebody once said to me: 'What about Proust? He didn't write like that.' I got round the fact that I've never read Proust by saying that if he had followed the rules I've set out, more people would have read him.'

(Photograph omitted)