Friday, July 06, 2007

Comes now?

As always, because I have a real job I don't get to post to my blog as much as I like. I've been editing a post on dangling modifiers, since there are only 52,138 other internet pages explaining why dangling modifiers are bad, but I haven't finished mine, which will be the pinnacle of dangling modifier criticism, I suppose. (Again, for those of you who haven't the foggiest idea what a dangling modifier is, surely there's a NASCAR race stored in your Tivo ready to watch.) Instead, I've got a blog for my fellow attorneys, many of whom file pleadings in court containing the phrase "Comes now". As in:

"Comes now Plaintiff, John Doe, and complains of Defendant, David Evildoer, and pray the Court grant him judgment, and for cause of action would show the following."

A question. You're sitting on your favorite barstool at the local watering hole, taking the edge off a rough day in the salt mine with your favorite poison (for me, a tall draft of Harp or Warsteiner, or on a Friday, a shot of Maker's Mark with a sidecar of ice) and your best friend walks in to join you. Do you exclaim "Comes now Drew, and sits next to mine self to drink beer"? Okay, if you answered this question "yes", an exciting career in writing boring pleadings awaits you. If you answered "no", then I understand why you hate legalese.

I can tell you that the stilted "Comes now" style of prose is not taught in law school. At least, not at the University of Texas School of Law, the shoddy public state school where I learned the law. Instead, this horrible style of "writing" is passed on to law clerks -- the trade slang for interns, or law students with summer jobs -- by attorneys who may or may not know better, but either don't, or are too lazy to care.

Now, no pleading is ever going to make the New York Times's best-seller list or appear in Atlantic Monthly's poetry section, whether it be written by David Dullpen or Clarence Darrow. The pleadings are meant to be read only by judges and lawyers. Okay, they're not even meant to be read by those folks. Arguably, they don't matter at all. Except that I just lied: pleadings should also be read by a group of folks more important than judges and lawyers: clients. And this is the reason that they are written so badly: legalese has to be dense so lawyers don't let on to their clients that what they're doing is not rocket science. It's difficult, of course, but because clients may not understand the real reasons that practicing law is difficult, we have to give them a fake reason: the convoluted pleading language that no one can read, and very few people attempt.

Early in my career, while a measly clerk at the OAG in Texas, I came upon the worst pleading I'd ever read, in which the plaintiff's attorney redundantly paired every word he possibly could, resulting in such legalistic crap as "then and there", "failed and refused", "way, shape, or form", and so forth. A petition for relief that should have taken 6 pages took 17. (It was also printed in some horrible font, like OCR, which was almost impossible to read.)

Here's a sample of an opening statement from one of my pleadings:

"Paula Plaintiff complains of Dave Defendant, and for cause of action would show the following."

Keep in mind that this is the least important, and therefore worst, sentence in a petition; everything else is at least in English. Nevertheless, compared to some pleadings I've read, it's Shakespeare.

1 comment:

Charlotte Allen said...

I love pleading-ese! It's like the judge wearing a gown and a wig in English courtrooms. It emphasizes the dignity and ancient status of the law. It lends an aura of seriousness to the humblest fender-bender case