5 tips for busy lawyers to understand the unintelligible

5 tips for busy lawyers to understand the unintelligible

Sometimes it felt as though half my professional life in private practice was spent with a cold towel over my head trying to understand what another lawyer had written.

I used to think that it was me. It was my fault that I couldn't understand it. I was an imposter posing as a lawyer and I knew nothing. I was a fraud. I was always minutes away from being found out.

And then it slowly dawned on me as I gained experience: it wasn't me.

All too often, an unintelligible clause was down to awful drafting, not me failing to understand it. On other occasions, the lawyer on the other side quite simply didn't understand what was going on themselves. The result? Drafting that resembled treacle.

Unfortunately, there will always be occasions when lawyers, regardless as to how much experience they have, need to understand the incomprehensible.

So, here are five quick tips to help you wade through the legal treacle of opaque drafting:

Reread it.

Really. Reread it.

Still no joy? Then do it again.

My rough rule of thumb is that, if after three attempts at reading a chunk of text it makes no sense, then it is probably a load of old cobblers.

Perhaps run it past a colleague—there is nothing to lose from being humble from time to time. If they struggle as much as you, then you are probably on to something: the drafting doesn't work.

Break it down

A paragraph that is 25 sentences long, like some convoluted Victorian statute, is not a good way to start the day for many lawyers.

The modern human brain—which, by my calculation, has an attention span of about 0.27 microseconds—struggles to digest information when it is presented in impossibly large, un-paragraphed chunks. (No wonder the Victorians wore top hats, it helped to stop their heads exploding trying to work out what the hell was going on in their contracts.)


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