KISS – What’s it all about really?

By Legal Eagle


No, I’m not talking about the 80s glam-rock/heavy metal band. Gene Simmons’ tongue fetish freaks me out far too much. I’m talking about the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid! Also known as Occam’s razor (ie, the fewer assumptions on which an explanation depends, the better it is.)

I have decided that true genius lies cutting to the heart of things; in describing complicated things in a simple manner. In explaining why I feel this way right now (and why I have not blogged for a while) I have just marked about 70 university law essays. Only 40 more to go. Sigh! This experience has filled me with enthusiasm for the KISS principle anew.

Despite the drive towards plain English in the law, many lawyers seem to feel that it is part of their job to make things complicated. Express your argument with as many big words as you can! Put words like eleemosynary into your letters of advice, just to show learned and clever you are… Now, as you can guess from some of my previous posts, I like words which are rare (or indeed, rarefied) but not when I’m trying to get my point across.

When I was a solicitor, I often found that I lacked the time to sit back and think about a case. I always intended to put a big sign on the back of my door which said “WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT…REALLY?” just to remind myself to whittle things down to their essence.

I once heard a story about a QC (now a Judge). The QC was acting for the respondent in an appeal. The barrister for the appellant took three days to present his argument, painstakingly going through every aspect of his argument. The QC stood up at the end of all this, and said “Your Honours, the appellant’s case is wrong for one simple reason…” 15 minutes later, after outlining the fundamental flaws in the appellant’s case, the QC sat down. He was finished. The Associate who told me about this performance said that it was simply breathtaking. Guess what? The QC won.

The moral of the story is that, sometimes, if words are carefully chosen, less is much, much more. One of my favourite judgments of all time is the judgment of Lord Denning in Thornton v Shoe Lane Parking Ltd [1971] 2 QB 163, in particular this extract describing the “offer and acceptance” procedure when one takes a parking ticket from an automatic machine:

“The customer pays his money and gets a ticket. He cannot refuse it. He cannot get his money back. He may protest to the machine, even swear at it; but it will remain unmoved. He is committed beyond recall. He was committed at the very moment when he put his money into the machine. The contract was concluded at that time.”

Brilliance, say I! No sentence with over 15 words. The passage paints such a vivid picture. I can just imagine the poor man remonstrating and pleading with the parking machine, then descending into swearing, and finally physically assaulting the machine.

It seems to me that sometimes, lawyers forget why they exist. This includes solicitors, barristers, legal academics, legal aid lawyers, government lawyers, judges…indeed, every facet of the legal profession! I know that I am guilty of this sin from time to time.

The point of being a lawyer is to communicate with the rest of the word. We are the mediators between the law and everyone else. If you are a solicitor, you are trying to explain the law to your client (and sometimes other parties). If you are a barrister, you are trying to explain the law to the Court and your solicitors. If you are a legal academic, you are trying to explain the law to students. If you are a judge, you are trying to explain the law to the parties who have asked you to determine their dispute and to the legal profession at large.

Before I get too carried away (and make a simple post complicated), I’d better stop. If you’re a lawyer out there reading this post, I implore you to remember your audience and KISS!

8 Comments

  1. missv
    Posted October 17, 2006 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Here, here! There is a similiar philosophy is the area of web writing and design, epitomised by Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think.

    I also like the following quote:

    “Of all the barriers to change – and to realizing the benefits of plain language – none is greater than the myth that clarity has to be sacrificed for precision, especially with complex subjects. Don’t believe it. The murkiness that plagues so much official and legal prose is usually generated by the writer, not by the substance. It comes more from bad style than from the inherent difficulty of the subject.”

    Richard Kimble, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please

  2. Anonymous
    Posted October 18, 2006 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Great piece LE !
    Your sentiment applies to so many field other than the law. My way of putting it is that many people seek a Rolls Royce solution to a Ford problem.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted October 19, 2006 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Not sure I agree. In an essay, yes. In litigation, contract negotiation, even legal policy making (the three things I’ve done) there is always a calling for clear accurate language, but that’s not quite the same as plain english.

    =”The point of being a lawyer is to communicate with the rest of the word. We are the mediators between the law and everyone else.”=

    Legal journalists, critics, judges and academics maybe. Litigators and others are there to win cases and obliterate opponents. It is the nature of our legal, commercial and political systems, all of which lawyers have input into.

  4. Legal Eagle
    Posted October 20, 2006 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    If we’re going to get into the fighting metaphor here, it is so much easier to win a fight with a single well-placed uppercut than by flailing around for hours and only landing a few weak punches.

    I guess what I’m saying is that if you want to make your argument effectively (and obliterate the other side), I think it is much easier to do so if you communicate it as clearly and effectively as possible. You want the person who is making the decision to go “Ah! What a brilliant point. I’ll do what Legal Eagle suggests.”

    To my mind, part of being a litigator is making it easy for the Judge or arbiter to come down on your side. If you produce complicated affidavits which go into all sorts of extraneous and irrelevant detail, it is much harder for the Judge to work out that he or she should make the decision in your favour.

    I think the same reasoning could apply to contract negotiations (persuading the other side they should accept your version of the contract) and government policy making (persuading the Minister that he or she should do what you recommend) although I haven’t worked in these areas myself.

  5. Lol
    Posted November 2, 2006 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Excellent point. However,what I love most is that your crush on Lord Denning continues! Much love, L.

  6. Anthony_
    Posted July 23, 2007 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Great post LE 😉

  7. Posted May 12, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Oh how I love Lord Denning! And that passage has also long been a favourite of mine.

    Next time I teach an early year law subject (especially Contracts) I may just pass out this post. It is frightening what can be done to the English language when people take pains to sound ‘legal’ – especially when they are not yet sure what that means…

  8. munroe
    Posted May 12, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    I’m a big believer in this principle. However, an old mentor of mine had a variant. he used to say “Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
    The catch is in the last phrase.
    If you overshoot you can leave out something important in your desire for simplicity.

4 Trackbacks

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