By Mark Cohen
Seeing Through Legalese is Professor Joseph Kimble’s second book of essays on the use plain of language in law. Prof. Kimble taught legal writing at the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School for more than 30 years and is the editor of the Michigan Bar Journal’s Plain Language column. His first book on the topic, Lifting the Fog of Legalese was acclaimed as “superb,” “invaluable,” and “a treasure.”
Seeing Through Legalese collects Prof. Kimble’s more recent essays on plain language. Prof. Kimble structured the book in three parts. Part one focuses on drafting legal documents. Part two is a collection of essays on legal writing in general. Part three consists of transcripts of interviews with Prof. Kimble and of remarks he made in accepting various legal writing awards.
A passionate advocate for eliminating legalese, Prof. Kimble devotes little time to explaining how legalese came to permeate the profession. Instead, he jumps right in by offering practical advice on eliminating legalese and explaining the benefits of doing so.
Prof. Kimble served as a drafting consultant on the project to restyle the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Part one of Seeing Through Legalese explains the legal writing principles employed in that effort and includes numerous side-by-side comparisons so readers can see how the drafters employed plain language principles to simplify and improve the rules. For instance, one principle was to avoid stating the obvious. The prior version of FRCP 56(a) provided, “A party may move for summary judgment in the party’s favor…” The current version provides, “A party may move for summary judgment…” There was no need for the phrase “in the party’s favor” because a motion for summary judgment, by definition, requests judgment in favor of the moving party. No party ever moves for summary judgment in favor of the opposing party.
In part two, Prof. Kimble addresses some myths about plain language in law and offers strong evidence that plain language is more effective than legalese. He then provides tips for improving structure, formatting, and style. My favorite essay in part two is a satirical piece in which Prof. Kimble offers tips on how to avoid plain language in favor of legalese. For instance, “Try to have more than half of every page devoted to footnotes.” And “Strive for an average sentence length of about 35 words. Anything less will not challenge your reader enough.”
The transcripts of the interviews with Prof. Kimble and of his remarks in part three of Seeing Through Legalese offer an enjoyable review of some of what Prof. Kimble has learned about legal writing in his distinguished career.
Seeing Through Legalese is not a text on legal writing or plain language; however, Prof. Kimble’s book contains sound advice, helpful guidelines and real-world examples. Readers will enjoy the variety and may even find inspiration in Prof. Kimble’s essays.
Mark Cohen has practiced law for 34 years. He earned his law degree at the University of Colorado and his LL.M. at the University of Arkansas, where he also taught legal writing. His practice emphasizes business litigation. He enjoys helping lawyers and organizations improve legal documents by translating them from legalese into plain English. A former chairperson of the Advisory Board of The Colorado Lawyer, his many publications include “How to Draft a Bad Contract,” first published in The Colorado Lawyer in August 2015. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.