I recently had the good fortune to hear Ian McEwan (author of the wonderful Atonement, among other books) and Steven Pinker (a name I’d never heard before — yet more proof of my vast ignorance) discuss what makes good writing. McEwan is of course a gifted novelist; Pinker is a cognitive scientist who thinks about (among other things) how children acquire language skills. This made for an interesting discussion.
Both authors had recently published new books. If you don’t want to spring for the price of Pinker’s book, you can read the nutshell version of his thesis in his recent article in the Wall Street Journal.
I stole the title of this column from Pinker’s talk. Pinker says that many people blame the internet for the younger generation’s inability to write clearly. But if Twitter’s the culprit — “the kids these days can write only 140-character sentence fragments” — then the world should have been awash in pristine prose in the days before Twitter.
We were not, of course. Most writing sucked in the ’90s, too. And in the ’80s. And the ’70s. And, according to Pinker, people have been complaining about bad writing in literally every generation since the invention of the printing press.
So it would be nice — but wrong — to blame today’s bad writing on modern technology.
If technology isn’t the culprit, then what is? Pinker’s thesis is one that I suspect all good legal writers have known subconsciously all along. But it’s worth speaking the words out loud and thinking about how to use this concept to improve both your writing and the writing of those you edit. . . .
Not that one — that’s the final version, edited by guys who could write. We’re looking for your work, untouched by others. Find the unedited draft that you first circulated. (If you don’t have a draft brief handy, that’s okay. Find the last long email that you sent to someone who matters — to the partner, the client, the general counsel, or the CEO.)
Second, click through this link, which will tell you how to enable Microsoft Word’s “readability” feature on your computer. Enable that feature.
Third, let the readability feature score your work.
Finally, take a handkerchief and wipe the spit out of your eye. (I bet you didn’t realize that a computer could spit in your eye.)
You didn’t notice the spit? Here it comes: Compare your readability score to the average readability score for the works of bestselling authors. . . .
Petitioner’s brief, unfortunately, was laden with obscure acronyms notwithstanding the admonitions in our handbook (and on our website) to avoid uncommon acronyms. Since the brief was signed by a faculty member at Columbia Law School, that was rather dismaying both because of ignorance of our standards and because the practice constitutes lousy brief writing.
– Judge Laurence Silberman of the D.C. Circuit, condemning a brief for an abundance of acronyms.
(More information — including the identity of the offending professor, and the full opinion — after the jump.)
I have two reactions. First, thank you! Let’s debate these issues in public! And, so long as you spell my name right, you’re doing us both a favor!
Second, I’m right, and you’re wrong! Why? Because I’ve never in my life reviewed the work of a new lawyer and thought: “This draft would be pretty good if only it used a bunch of longer sentences. The cure to what ails this brief is to add some complexity to it.” If you were honest with yourself, Professor Osbeck, you’d admit that you’ve never seen that, either. On the other hand, both you and I frequently see sentences that desperately need to buy a period. So what should we teach — the rule or the exception?
On Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit benchslapped a gaggle of lawyers for filing briefs with excessive acronyms. The court’s per curiam order directed the parties to “submit briefs that eliminate uncommon acronyms used in their previously filed final briefs.”
Alas, attempts to comply with this order have raised a new problem — a problem that some readers saw a mile away….
The defendants’ appeal brief is a gaunt, pathetic document (there is no reply brief). Minus formal matter, it is only eight and a half pages long. Brevity is the soul of wit, and all that, but still: the first seven and a half pages are simply a recitation of the history of the Georgia lawsuit, the settlement negotiations, and the present suit, along with questionable and irrelevant facts; and the tiny argument section of the brief — 118 words, including citations — states merely, without detail or elaboration, that the defendants do not possess the settlement funds and therefore can’t restore them.
Contractors have been there before — an unnecessarily angry associate screaming at a room of temps muttering about when they were first-year associates. So what has got their panties in a bunch? Well, like most curmudgeons, it is change. The legal landscape is rapidly shifting, and one has to move with the tide or be swept away.
We frequently throw the term “Contract Attorney” around in this column, but there are a wide variety of tasks that are now considered contract work. As the tasks change, contractors encroach more and more on work traditionally thought of as an associate’s domain.
So what are the most typical contractor tasks, and how are they affecting the associates’ way of life?
I took the train to Paris recently. (Sorry — I can’t help myself. I just love typing those words.)
That gave me an uninterrupted two hours to edit a document on the way to Paris and another uninterrupted two hours to edit a document on the way home.
The experiences couldn’t have been more different.
What’s odd is that it wasn’t the quality of the drafts that made the experiences different for me (the editor), but rather the quality of the reactions that I anticipated receiving from the authors.
How can that be? How can an editor enjoy revising one document and loathe revising another based solely on the anticipated responses to the edits? And what lessons might that teach the author (the person being edited)?
Jiminy jillickers! ATL editors are going all over the place over the next month or so. Or at least all over the Eastern Seaboard. If we aren’t heading to your neck of the woods on these trips, never fear, we may hit you up on the next time around. We’ve already hit up Houston, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in the past year.
Kinney Recruiting’sEvan Jowers is currently in Hong Kong for client meetings and still has a few slots available through October 22. Evan will also be in Hong Kong November 14 to December 15. Further, Robert Kinney has been in Frankfurt and Munich this week and is available for meetings with our Germany based readers.
One of our key law firm clients has referred us to one of their important clients in the US, Europe and China – a leading global technology supplier for the auto industry – in order to handle their search for a new Asia General Counsel and Asia Chief Compliance Officer.
Kinney is exclusively handling this in-house search.
This position will have a lot of responsibility and include supervision of eight attorneys underneath them in the Asia in-house team. The new hire will report directly to the global general counsel and global chief compliance officer, who is based in the US. The new hire’s ability to make judgement calls is going to be as important as their technical skill set background.
The position is based in Shanghai and will deal with the company’s operations all over Asia and also in India, including frequent acquisitions in the region.
It is expected that the new hire will come from a top US firm’s Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong offices, currently in a top flight corporate practice at the senior associate, counsel or partner level. Of course, the candidate can be currently in a relevant in-house role.
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