Keep it simple

5 mins

Life is difficult. So let’s keep things simple.

This week, we check out some tips from George Orwell on how we can write well—and produce better legal advice.

You might know of a videogame called “Overcooked”. It’s a multiplayer cooking game where players run around a kitchen making as many dishes as possible within the time limit.

The process of making a complete dish—and fast—needs a bit of pre-planning. But the Giant Spaghetti Monster only cares about getting his meals at the end.

The client?

This means that you might have to rely on a few shortcuts. Like leaving your onions on the floor, so that your cooking buddy can pick it up for their chopping board on the other side of the kitchen. It’s not exactly OHS compliant or food-safe.

Things get super complicated when there are too many cooks (as in players) bumping into each other in the kitchen.

I think of Overcooked like how we produce legal advice. When you’re cooking your dish—everything is about speed and accuracy. Put the wrong ingredients together and you’ll have to tip the entire dish into the bin. You may end up yelling at each other because you’re short on time. Or the soup goes up in flames if you leave it on the stove for too long. Kind of like missing a deadline.

You can make life more complicated by walking in zig-zag. But all that matters is producing a meal at the end that’s edible (well, the beef patty might have been on the floor for 5 seconds).

And then sometimes, we actually overcook things.

“Ummm, the kitchen’s on fire…”

The sausage factory

They say that you never want to see how they make sausages. But with legal work, you don’t have to see the inner workings of the sausage factory to know whether the end product is any good.

As lawyers, we have a tendency to overcook issues and solutions. The inner cynic would say that this justifies high fees. But there are other reasons for the overcooking. One of them is a misunderstanding of what we lawyers are here to solve.

Sex sells… unfortunately, we sell…

When you boil it down, being a lawyer isn’t about sitting in a fancy office with a view, dressing up, behaving like a tool, or using a fountain pen… tool (I’m not kidding, they exist).

One of the more self-aware cafes out there.
(Istanbul, Turkey)

Lawyers are here for one purpose. To provide specific legal solutions to specific problems, and if we do it well, peace of mind for the client.

Peace of mind comes about when we make problems go away or reduce their costliness (the job of litigators). Or when we make things happen or prevent future misunderstandings (the job of front-end lawyers who draft and negotiate contracts).

Beyond providing legal solutions, lawyers have little power outside this jurisdiction—other than providing a listening ear and hopefully more than a smidgeon of EQ. With this said, family lawyers would argue that they often double up as psychologists. On balance, legal solutions make up a narrow set of responses to any given situation.

When we forget what we are here to sell, there will be an inevitable mismatch between the problem we need to solve and what we end up producing. It’s like getting all the orders in the kitchen wrong. Our “solutions” will also tend to be complicated and unhelpful. And the Giant Spaghetti Monster will be very, very angry.

Hey, this advice is overcooked!

One way to stop the rot of subpar legal work is to focus on how we use language. In his essay, Politics and the English Language, Orwell noted that:

“[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
— George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, page 1

When we make things more complicated than they should be or use imprecise language, it reveals our thought processes. When we make things complicated, we will confuse ourselves (as well as others). It also means that we do not understand what we’re trying to solve.

Everyone knows what good legal advice looks like. It makes you, the reader, feel calm and in control. No problem is too big or scary–and there are clear solutions at the end. It’s like someone giving you a good roadmap so you know where to go.

Reading bad legal advice is like watching a debate between two lost travellers who can’t agree on which road they want to take. When you get to the end, you have this kind of strange, sick feeling in your stomach like an undigested meal. Ugh, overcooked!

Here are some tips from Orwell on how we can stop the rot.

Tip 1. Nothing knocks out like concrete

First, be clear in what you’re trying to convey. Be concrete. So concrete that you’ll knock your reader out with clarity. Resist the temptation to flip-flop or use unnecessary qualifiers. It will only confuse your reader. Get rid of dangerous words like “notwithstanding” and “insofar”, which tempt you to sit on the (very pokey) fence.

“The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.”
— George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, page 10

Let’s aim for the opposite.

Tip 2. Best if you digest

Second, digest and comprehend before you start advising. Don’t borrow words or try and write like someone else (or how you imagine a lawyer should write). The journey to confusion hell starts when you try to string borrowed sentences together without thinking about the real problem you’re trying to solve.

“… modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”
— George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, page 11

Tip 3. Less is more

‘Nuff said.

We spend too much energy making ourselves look good by using big words and long sentences. The worst part is that you’ll slow down your reader and irritate them. It’s time to make your readers feel good.

Are you including details that don’t have any relevance to solving the problem? Then it doesn’t need to be there. Remember that no one wants to read 20 pages of advice. And always, keep your sentences short.

Some great examples of how we can practice the “less is more” approach:

  • Summarise your advice on one PowerPoint slide or A4 piece of paper.
  • Provide advice in the form of a video recording (aim for under 5 minutes).

“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy… and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

— George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, page 20

Further reading:

Image credit (main) // David van Dijk