Bryan Garner Thinks We All Lawyers Can't Write So Good

By William Peacock, Esq. on March 04, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In a long, long rant published on the ABA Journal's website, famed legal writing deity Bryan Garner accuses the vast majority of attorneys of being sorry scribes. He supports this proposition by citing the Dunning-Kruger effect, a well-known psychological principle that can be summed up in a few words:

The more you suck at something, the better you think you are, especially in relation to others.

Wait, so Garner is saying lawyers are arrogant about their abilities? Color us shocked - and mildly insulted to boot.

The full Dunning-Kruger effect states that unskilled individuals think that their ability is above average and are unable to recognize their own incompetence unless and until they develop actual skill. Here, ignorance isn't bliss, ignorance is confidence. Ironically enough, skill breeds a lack of confidence, as one begins to believe that others have an equivalent understanding.

Garner might be correct, though we'd like to point out that one vital aspect of writing well, which he seemed to miss, is writing concisely -- why use 1,658 words when a few hundred would do?

Despite his verbosity, his point is well made by the following example:

"It is agreed that no waiver by either party hereto of any breach or default of any of the covenants or agreements herein set forth shall be deemed a waiver as to any subsequent and/or similar breach or default."

If that sounds like terrible writing to you - ding ding! - you are a winner. Lawyers suffer from overuse of legalese. It's a byproduct of arrogance and a need to show value. They use big words to make clients and others think that they know their stuff. This is the heart of Garner's argument, and a sentiment that we agree with wholeheartedly.

However, if one wants to address the issue of subpar prose in our profession, here is a simple solution: make all prospective lawyers read Judge Selya. For those unfamiliar with the literary genius of Judge Bruce M. Selya, he has made it his mission to write judicial opinions in an accessible and artistic style, while utilizing arcane vocabulary to spice things up.

For instance, it would not be unusual to run across such terms as impuissant, salmagundi, or gallimaufry in the midst of prose about speedy trials and sentencing enhancements. His opinions provide constant amusement, style lessons, and vocabulary enhancement to our First Circuit Blog readers on a weekly basis.

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