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Stop the Drivel

Vivia Chen

July 19, 2011

Corp_Speak I'm amused that so many lawyers fancy themselves to be good writers. They tell me they value clarity and precision above everything else. But what they think is clear and precise rarely comports with my idea.

I had my first drag-out fight about legal writing when I worked as a trusts and estates paralegal after college. In drafting a survivor's clause, I thought it was correct to simply say: "If my wife fails to survive me, my estate shall go to So-and-So." But the partner I worked for changed it to read: "If none of my wife survives me..." He insisted his version added clarity. But I thought it was just inaccurate, not to mention gruesome, suggesting that some parts of the wife might be flapping around.

I never developed a fondness for legal writing--not in law school or in practice. It was painful for me to read and write legal gibberish, which is why I regard it as a miracle that I somehow survived five years as a corporate lawyer.

I doubt anything will cure legalese, but maybe this recent study by New York University and the University of Basel in Switzerland will help. In a nutshell, the study says: If you want credibility, you should avoid using jargon. Writings that use "concrete" rather than "abstract" language got higher marks for truthfulness, according to the study.

But besides abusing the written word, lawyers have also taken to using business-speak during meetings and conference calls. Maybe they're just parroting their banker clients, who have always loved action-sounding jargon. Or maybe they're hanging out too much with management consultants.

In any case, here are some of my pet peeve phrases with translation:

        1. "Take it to the next level." Translation: The partner is clueless about what to do, so you better come up with a solution.

        2. "We're all about best practices." Translation: The firm is getting failing grades in diversity, women, etc., and has no idea what what to do about the problem.

        3. "There is a paradigm shift in the industry." Translation: Your minimal billable requirement is going up.

        4. "You will get real-world experience." Translation: You will be stuck doing document reviews.

        5. "We have management buy-in." Translation: It was the managing partner's idea in the first place.

Vault has also compiled a handy little list of phrases to avoid. Here are some of them:

Business-speak             What people who aren't liars say

"Reach out"                    "Talk to/phone/e-mail/send carrier pigeon to"

"Deep dive"                    "Instead of doing our usual half-assed job, we took the time
                                           to investigate properly"

"Deliverables"                 "Mundane tasks I am responsible for completing"

"Ballpark"                       "I have no idea. But here's a guess"

"Verbiage"                      "Words"

"Let's take this offline"     "Let's talk about this after the meeting, so we don't
                                              embarrass ourselves in front of the boss/waste everyone else's time"

Is there a favorite phrase that's used at your shop? What corporate drivel drives you crazy?

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Very well said, Vivia

I compiled a long list of jargon words that you can download free, and it is illustrated with cartoons,
at http://plainlanguagewizardry.com

I had the term "granular" when used to refer to details. "I took a granular look at the proposal..." uggghhh

"We'll appoint a committee." This is what we did at my old firm when we faced a question that we did not want answered. There was a particular partner who always chaired the committee, and in 30 years, no question was ever answered.

"We did our due diligence" has to be the most overused, empty and meaningless jargon in the legal/business arsenal.

It's meant to convey to the reader that a thorough and competent investigation and review was performed, but when that phrase is used without any description of what was actually done, it conveys just the opposite to me.

You just commited a big logical fallacy there Jeff. You're trying to refute a contention by pointing out a technical flaw, as if this somehow addresses the larger point in question. It doesn't. Besides, this post isn't about grammer, its about the over use of jargon, legal and otherwise. I agree with Vivia totally.

One of my favorites is "being a team player," which translates to "you'll have to work more for less money, and come in on weekends too."

Well, I'm just a graduate of a second-tier law school, who according to Ms. Chen's article the other day, should "not even have bothered" to become a lawyer, but I have never engaged in business speak or legal jargon, always "cutting to the chase" (is that jargon?). For those of us who have never ventured into the buck-passing hallowed halls of corporate America or big law, this kind of nonsense is meaningless to the actual practice of law outside the big firms and big business. I thank the stars above for that. Now let's go chrun some billable hours. Is that clear enough?

I am particularly peeved by people who lecture others on gramatical precision and conciseness then use a phrase similar to, "I had my first drag out fight."

Did the author really drag her opponent out of the room or Is this an example of the nonsense-babble of which she complains?

Quality control or QC as a verb.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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