I host a bi-monthly “lunch and learn” for the staff in my department; attendance is voluntary. In advance of the meeting, attendees suggest and vote on the session’s topic. Topics range from software-specific, like Adobe Acrobat or PowerPoint, to soft skills, such as time management, and just about anything else they find relevant and productive. At the most recent session, we had a mixed bag of topics but ended with a quick review of some grammar and usage “troubleshooting tips.”
This particular topic was at my suggestion and was urged not by anything I’d been seeing in their writing but more by the stories circulating the legal blogs over the last few weeks. Let me say that these stories are almost hard to believe, not because I have a hard time imagining legal writing that is just plain bad—trust me, that’s the easy part. But I do have a hard time imagining the court that actually responds in the ways described in these stories.
Part of me loves the idea of a court that takes legal citations very seriously and part of me cringes. I mean, everyone makes mistakes. I am hopeful that I don’t make the “mistakes” that the lawyers in the stories below made. But everybody has bad days, right?
In any event, here are a few stories that scare me enough to review Garner’s The Redbook: A Manual of Legal Style, by Bryan A. Garner one more time before I file that brief.
#1: Bad Writing Can Cause Public Humiliation
Although public humiliation may seem like the least terrifying of the three reasons listed here, it also seems like the worst. It’s the most likely to happen; after all, what are the chances that your writing is going to get you tossed into jail? It’s a bit difficult to imagine (thankfully).
But having a judge be so irritated by grammatical and typographical errors that he red pens the document and publishes it on the official court docket for all the world to see is much closer to reality, making it all the more horrifying. A federal judge in Florida, apparently, was just that irritated over errors in an attorney’s brief. The errors ranged from “excess spacing” to typos to incorrect capitalization to word choice. Here’s one example, cited by the ABA Journal: “[the plaintiff] had attended on filing” this action, instead of saying the plaintiff had “intended” to file an action
#2: Bad Writing Can Lead to Monetary Fine
The ABA Journal brings us a great story about a Wisconsin lawyer who was fined $100 for submitting a brief that contained an incorrect citation, which led the court on a wild goose chase to hunt down the case that should have been cited. I’ll confess, this strikes me as nothing more than justice at work. Erroneous case citations are enough to drive even the most even-tempered to the edge.
#3: Bad Writing Can Result in Jail Time
Carl Smith, an attorney is Missouri was charged with criminal contempt and sentenced to 120 days in jail for language used in court filings. In his papers, Smith said that certain events indicated a “personal interest, bias, and purported criminal conduct” by and between the judge, the prosecutor, and other court officials. The ACLU is one of several organizations that came to Smith’s defense, claiming that the punishment of an attorney based on his legal filings would have a chilling effect on free speech in the justice system.
If these stories motivate you to polish up your writing skills, you can get a great start by checking out our post on the 10 Funniest Writing Blogs, 20 Online Dictionaries, and Top 30 Blogs on Writing.