Years ago my new employer, U.S. District Judge Prentice H. Marshall of Chicago, handed me an article and said, “Read it, and when writing for me, follow it.”
The title said it all: “Goodbye to Footnotes,” University of Colorado Law Review (1984-85). The author explained that “several years ago” he had “quit cold-turkey” on using footnotes, and admitted that “it was – and sometimes still is – very painful.” He allowed just 2 notes in his 5-page essay. The 1st footnote – * – told the reader that the author was another Chicagoan, Judge Abner J. Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The 2d footnote – 4 – was a wry nod to the Supreme Court’s 1938 decision in Carolene Products.
The contention that overindulgence in footnotes clouded legal reasoning had much to commend it. Though too rigid for a law clerk to follow without exception, it proved a useful reminder that every legal writer ought to weigh carefully whether a note adds, or rather detracts, from what she’s writing.
If only legal writers gave the same thought to their use of acronyms.
Among the works I’ve read this week: a complex, erudite essay in legal history, doctrine, and theory, spanning well over a score of single-spaced book pages; and a 2,000-word online account of a recent legal development. The latter was intended to provide a ready grasp of its subject, yet the former was far easier to read, far more inviting to ponder.
The difference? The essay, though longer, eschewed acronyms; in contrast, a gobbledygook of unfamiliar all-caps formations littered the brief account. The longer essay proved far more readable because each phrase was described on subsequent reference by a shorthand of words, rather than an unpronounceable amalgam of initials. The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” for instance, was not forced to take on the ugly form of “UDHR”; it assumed the more elegant moniker of “Declaration.” In contrast, the very 1st sentence of the short account introduced, via annoying parentheticals, no fewer than 3 acronyms. None was familiar to the generalist international lawyer, and all contained virtually the same letters. One inserted a hyphen to boot. At each recurrence of these contrivances, this reader found herself having to stop and return to that 1st sentence just to figure out what was being discussed. And by the end of the 2,000 words, yet another half-dozen acronyms had been added to the account’s alphabet soup. (photo credit)
This style of presentation has little to commend it, except perhaps in the scribbles of the researcher, the crib notes on which she relies to craft the work she will eventually publish. Our goal as international lawyers should not be to display our inside knowledge through alphabet soup. This practice operates to exclude all who can’t follow the letters. It invites confusion, too; as an example, Google “ICC” to see just how many entities go by that abbreviation. Our goal should be to make our work accessible to all who are interested. Sparing use of only the best-known acronyms would leap in that direction.