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Please say it in English, counselor!

REMEMBER the old joke about the lawyer who proposed to his sweetheart, asking for her ``hand in marriage - and all the appendages thereof''? Is legalese - the gobbledygook or verbal excesses often used by lawyers and judges - just an annoyance the rest of us must put up with? Or does it have more serious ramifications?

Those who have been subjected to this complex, fuzzy language in wills, consumer contracts, and consent forms are often more than annoyed.

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And many taxpayers confronted with a new W-4 form - and a subsequent, supposedly more simplified W-4A - to help them reassess withholding allowances under the new tax law, are downright perplexed by the wordage of the instructions.

There have, however, been some significant efforts to demystify the law. Among them:

A movement among judges in recent years to write more understandable opinions, using lay language where possible. Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson has been a leader in this area.

A prodding of those who write state laws and municipal ordinances to express themselves in a precise and clear manner. Prof. Richard Wydick of the law school at the University of California, Davis, has written a textbook, ``Plain English for Lawyers.''

And now legal scholars Robert W. Benson and Joan B. Kessler are hitting lawyers who write with obscurity in a most vulnerable spot. The twosome claim that the heavy-handed and often confusing writing styles of many counselors hurt their credibility with judges.

Dr. Benson, a law professor at Loyola of Los Angeles and Dr. Kessler, a practicing lawyer and former speech professor at California State University, insist that judges are impressed by lawyers who can put legal complexities into plain English.

On the other hand, they are put off by advocates whose prose is mired in traditional, legalistic gobbledygook.

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The Benson-Kessler ``say it with clarity'' team stresses that this is no mere observation. It is a result of first-of-its-kind empirical research on what judges think about lawyers' writing style.

A group of 10 California appellate judges and 33 legal assistants was recently given the opportunity to read two versions of the same legal documents - excerpts from papers actually filed in court and then the same paragraphs rewritten into plain English.

By a significant majority, the respondents preferred the latter, reports Benson.

The judges tended to assume that the lawyers who wrote the gobbledygook were ``unpersuasive'' and ``not from prestigious law firms.''

In contrast, the plain English versions were generally well received and, according to Benson and Kessler, the professional credentials of the writers were less likely to be questioned.

``The lesson is clear,'' says Benson. ``If lawyers today want to be perceived as competent and classy, they've got to get rid of their legalese and learn how to write clear, simple English.''

Benson and Kessler's findings appear in more detail in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review. Perhaps they will awaken lawyers to the importance of writing with greater clarity.

The threat of loss of credibility with judges, however, should not be the prime reason for making legal documents more readable and understandable.

Lawyers hold a public trust. They have a responsibility to uphold the law and represent their clients with vigor.

Shouldn't this commitment and accountability include clear and concise communication?

Some have suggested that lawyers often prefer to hide behind a protective veil of legalese.

Benson has called it a type of ``secret language'' that keeps laymen out and allows lawyers to charge high fees to translate their jargon into plain English.

One would hope that this is the exception - not the rule.

But why stop with lawyers? Shouldn't all public officials and bureaucrats be put to the test of clarity?

We expect people to respect laws and obey them. Let's make sure they are first able to comprehend them.

A Thursday column

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