Adobe opens legal style guide and encourages clear writing

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Adobe has made its Legal Department Style Guide available to everyone under a Creative Commons license. This shows that open source principles are illuminating even the foggy world of legal writing. I've taken a pass through the guide, and can affirm that it's generally sound and useful. It could help reduce obscurity in legal documents and foster more effective communication.

Adobe means for the guide to foster writing that is "accurate, complete, clear, and easy to read and understand." This is at once obvious and revolutionary. Arguing in favor of unclear, hard-to-understand writing is difficult, but whether because of tradition, willfulness, or laziness, clarity in legal writing is far from the norm.

The guide is short and pithy. Many of the tips are standard, though worthy, such as "use short sentences" and "omit surplus words." Some are matters of judgment or taste (such as the font choice of Calibri, size 10). The guide contains sensible guidelines on such matters as when to use capital letters, when to spell out numbers, and when to use italics. It offers good tips on using defined terms and similar commercial drafting questions. It discourages "and/or" as "either superfluous or dangerously ambiguous," and it strongly counsels avoidance of "shall."

The guide gives permission to dispense with fusty legalisms, like "whereas," "aforementioned," and "hereinafter." For some of these various matters, arguing for somewhat different rules would certainly be possible, and the amateur grammarians among us are free to do so. But for others, the style manual will save time and energy otherwise spent deciding on relatively minor judgements.

There's a sense in which language is the mother of all open source projects, since it's by nature collective and collaborative, and so many other human endeavors depend on its invention and evolution. The Adobe Legal Department Style Guide continues that great and ancient project.

It may be the case that Adobe's lawyers have some selfish motives in seeking to encourage use of the manual through Creative Commons licensing. For example, they may be hoping that other commercial lawyers will write so as to cause them fewer headaches. In any case, the authors have done the community a service. We all benefit when we can agree on conventions that facilitate communication, and the guide should encourage just that.

Check out the Adobe Legal Style Guide.

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Rob Tiller is vice president and assistant general counsel for Red Hat, where he manages patent, trademark, and copyright matters. He is a frequent speaker and writer on open source legal issues. Before coming to Red Hat, he was a partner with the law firm of Helms, Mulliss & Wicker, PLLC, where he specialized in commercial and IP litigation.

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