3 Reasons Why Lawyers Can’t Write

Although lawyers work with words and can wield them to great effect, experitneced law teacher Bryan Garner writes in the ABA Journal that they can also be the most “inept wielders of words” – particularly transactional lawyers.

Bryan Garner - Image: Terri Glanger
Bryan Garner – Image: Terri Glanger

He blames the law schools who inundate students with poorly-written and legalese-ridden opinions that he claims read like “over-the-top Marx Brothers parodies of stiffness and hyperformality.”

Can this be right – or write?

Garner outlines his reasons for the conclusion, writing:

For many years in lectures, I’ve likened practicing lawyers, when it comes to writing, to 23-handicap golfers who believe that they’re equal to the touring professionals. For those not golfers, this would mean that pretty poor golfers—those who habitually shoot in the mid-90s but benefit from the big handicap—somehow fool themselves into believing that they really are shooting in the mid-60s, and that they’re about as good as it gets. I’ve been trying, in other words, to say that lawyers on the whole don’t write well and have no clue that they don’t write well.

Now, thanks to an erudite lawyer friend of mine in Atlanta, Scott Killingsworth, I’ve discovered that there’s a scientific explanation for this phenomenon: the Dunning-Kruger effect.

In 1999, two Cornell psychologists—David Dunning and Justin Kruger—conducted a series of studies showing that unskillful or unknowledgeable people (1) often think they are quite skillful or knowledgeable, (2) can’t recognize genuine skill in others, (3) uniformly fail to recognize the extremity of their own inadequacy, and (4) can recognize and acknowledge their own previous unskillfulness only after highly effective training in the skill.

He  goes on to say that people with skills tend to overestimate others’ skill levels.

A further finding of great interest is that skillful people tend to overestimate others’ skills and underestimate their own.

He refers to the practice of asking secretarial candidatesd to spell words correctly, using words like idiosyncrasy, inoculate and anoint.

Candidates rarely spell more than one correctly, and I gently correct them. Then, when asked by the next interviewer how they fared on my quiz, they usually answer something like “Quite well, actually.”

Read the 3 reasons and 3 conclusions Bryan Garner draws from this issue at the ABA Journal

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