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VOL. 35 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 14, 2011

Study break inspires satirical song lampooning legalese

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In 1975, during a study break before my first set of law school exams, I wrote a song.

Even now my classmates remember and remind me of that song.

Each time I teach the Law & Literature Seminar at my alma mater, in the last class of the semester, I sing it to my students.

The song is entitled “The Law Has Made a Stronger Man of Me.”

Even if you’re not a lawyer, I suspect you’ll like it – unless, of course, you were hearing me sing it.

Better, perhaps, to read it:

The law has made a stronger man of me.

Look inside my briefcase and you’ll see

The books I tote each day and night

To get me through my legal fights.

The law has made a stronger man of me.

The law has made a better man of me.

I took down all my spring-guns, can’t you see? [Katko v. Briney]

In my driving I’ve cut out the negligent pauses,

And I purged all my contracts of unconscionable clauses.

The law has made a better man of me.

The law has made an important man of me.

No longer do I speak of triviality.

I speak of conditions precedent, defeasible fees,

Summary judgments, express warranties.

The law has made an important-sounding man of me.

Although, no longer can I be understood in the community.

The law has made a bigger, a bolder, a wiser, a braver, a more magnanimous,

a more conscientious, a more loveable, a more humble …

My God, it’s created a monster! …

The law has made a stronger man of me.

The good news is I passed those first semester exams, even though I took a study break to write a song. Else, I’d not be writing this piece today.

As the lyrics imply, I had a thing about legalese way back in 1975. I’d made fun of it in an article I wrote for the American Bar Association’s Student Lawyer magazine.

The article was a mock court case, in which I charged the author of a judicial opinion with legal obfuscation, convicted him and sentenced him to writing classes.

The field of law is known for being fraught with terms and phrases so abstruse that even well-educated folk outside the field fail to comprehend them.

Sources agree that the term “legalese” was coined in 1914 to reference the intentional use by lawyers of long sentences, multiple modifiers, complex syntax, archaic vocabulary and such.

The hidden message was that in doing so, they made themselves necessary and, thus, justified high fees to write such for their clients, as well as to interpret the same as written by their peers.

No less an authority than Wikipedia states that “Today, the Plain Language Movement in legal writing is progressing ….”

I’m glad to hear that. Actually, I like to think that I was a part of the Plain Language Movement from the time I hit law school.

Although, all circumstance being taken into account, I must confess to being possessed of a certain devilish streak, which, from time to time, with or without prior notice being given, causes me to gain substantial enjoyment from lapsing, into a pronounced, albeit unpremeditated, spate of sheer, utter, degenerate usage of the language used by those juridical scriveners of centuries past ….

(The monster don’t die easy!)

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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