Taking Legal out of Legalese

Note: This blog is cross-posted from ACC Docket.

“The minute you read something that you can’t understand, you can almost be sure

that it was drawn up by a lawyer. ”
― Will Rogers

Illustration depicting a roadsign with a mumbo jumbo concept. Abstract background.

The famed American humorist, Will Rogers, was almost certainly going for the laugh when he uttered those words. But they ring true. The fact is that for centuries, the legal profession has been known for its redundant and ambiguous style of writing.  For example, in Cervantes’ 17th century novel, Don Quixote cautions, “But do not give it to a lawyer’s clerk to write, for they use a legal hand that Satan himself will not understand.”

The criticism is well-placed. Frequently, I find myself reading a legal document in my personal life — a mortgage, a car lease, a waiver for a child’s school activity — and thinking: “I’m an experienced attorney, and I have no idea what this means.”

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

In the Adobe legal department, we spend a lot of time discussing our brand. This may sound like a strange area of focus for an in-house legal function; however, having a positive brand is not just a reflection of success — it enables success.

Unfortunately, the brand of the legal profession is tainted by the perception that our inkwells are filled with obfuscation. A few years ago, our legal team at Adobe recognized that we have been part of the problem and decided to change things. It has been no small undertaking. As you might expect for a global company with more than three decades of history, we have a great deal of work to do. But, we are making real progress in rewriting our agreements, policies and training materials to ensure that they are models of clarity and simplicity.

We started this undertaking by identifying a small team of attorneys who are passionate about effective writing. (We identified them by whispering the word “shall” and noting whether they responded with an involuntary twitch.) We then asked them to work collaboratively to create a document that would reflect our collective agreement on how we write. The result is something we call the Adobe Legal Department Style Guide (super sexy title, I know). It’s become the core of how we communicate and is integrated in regular trainings and department communications, as well as being part of the process for new hires.

The result of these efforts have been documents that are much more understandable with improved formats that are easier to digest and provide consistency in format and style regardless of who drafted the documents. Better yet, this work has helped us save money — shorter contracts mean less money spent on translation. For global companies these savings can be significant. But, perhaps, the biggest benefit of this work has been a much more positive brand in the eyes of our customers and internal clients.

Now we’d like to help others do the same thing within their organizations. To this end, we are releasing the Adobe Legal Department Style Guide under a Creative Commons license so that other legal professionals can use it as the basis of similar efforts. It’s free and you are welcome to enhance and change it to best suit your department or organization’s needs (but please provide attribution — it’s a small way of showing thanks to the team that created it).

Here’s where you go to download your PDF of the Guide from the Adobe Legal home page.  Take a look at it and let us know what you think. Hopefully, it can be a start to ensuring that the Will Rogers of the future run out of material.

Mike Dillon, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary

Mike is anything but your typical general counsel. His distaste for acronym use and “legalese” drove him to rewrite Adobe’s contracts to plain English and develop a whole new writing style guide for the legal community. He oversees legal affairs, public policy, and compliance interests by day, but outside the office, he’s an avid blogger, writer, and adventurist. Given his love for writing, it may come as no surprise that Mike received bachelor’s degrees in communications and sociology from UC San Diego before getting his juris doctor degree from Santa Clara University. If Mike were not at Adobe, he’d like to be playing second baseman for the Oakland A’s.

Mike Dillon, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary