Researchers studying short-term memory have learned that reading comprehension drastically decreases when sentence length exceeds 15-20 words. This has to do with the way our brains store and transfer information. Unfortunately, many lawyers continue to equate verbosity with legal talent. In the pursuit of sounding lawyerly, many attorneys sacrifice the very thing they are paid to produce: effective communication. Let me give you an example. This is taken from a motion I oncereceived from an opposing attorney:
"A review of Gilding's allegations, and of the actual Union communications at issue, attached verbatim as Exhibits to NATCA's Statement of Undisputed Facts, confirms that Gilding's state law interference with contract claim is based, in its entirety, upon traditional Union activity protected by the CSRA: emails, blogs and other correspondence by NATCA or the Phoenix Local Union publicizing and protesting Gilding's unlawful and discriminatory misconduct as an FAA supervisor against FAA employees, who were members of and represented by NATCA, as determined by the EEOC, and protesting as well the FAA's attempt to reassign Gilding to supervise FAA employees represented by NATCA in the face of those EEOC findings."
That one sentence contains 109 words — more than 5 times the recommended sentence length. Try reading it out aloud in a single breath. I could only get to "interference with contract claim.". That's barely one-quarter of the way through the sentence. When you read it aloud, you can hear just how jumbled and disorganized the sentence is.
You probably assume that the sentence above was written by an inexperienced attorney who passed the Bar Exam on the fifth try. Or, maybe you think it was penned by one of those lawyers that advertise during reruns of the Jerry Springer show. You'd be wrong. It was actually written by a highly respected partner at one of the largest law firms in Phoenix. This particular attorney received the Burton Award from the Library of Congress in 2008, in recognition of his (ahem) achievements in legal writing.
Eloquence is not a mathematical property based on the number of words in a sentence. Short sentences can be powerful and moving. Take, for example, the closing argument given by Moe Levine in a case involving a double amputation:
As you know, about an hour ago we broke for lunch. I saw the bailiff come and take you all as a group to have lunch in the jury room. Then I saw the defense attorney, Mr. Horowitz. He and his client decided to go to lunch together. The judge and court clerk went to lunch. So, I turned to my client, Harold, and said "Why don't you and I go to lunch together?" We went across the street to that little restaurant and had lunch. (Significant pause.) Ladies and gentlemen, I just had lunch with my client. He has no arms. He has to eat like a dog. Thank you very much.
In just seven words ("He has to eat like a dog"), Moe Levine effectively demonstrated how his client had been stripped of his humanity by the injuries he had suffered. A lengthier argument wouldn't have made such a dramatic impact.
The fundamental objective in all legal work is to communicate effectively. Whether an attorney is drafting a contract, writing a letter, arguing to the court, or trying to convince a jury, the essential role of an attorney is to communicate ideas persuasively. If the audience can't even understand the message, it won't be persuaded.