Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Book Review: The Party of the First Part: The Curious World of Legalese (2007).

The Party of the First Part: The Curious World of Legalese contains many topics in search of a unifying theme.

Author Adam Freedman trots out "legalese" as an organizing principle, but it doesn't really encompass what this book covers.

It's partly:

1. An etymology text--exploring the derivations of certain legal words;

2. A primer on basic legal concepts--a sort of how-to manual for laypeople;

3. A polemic for Freedman's political agenda;

4. A collection of hilarious lawsuit anecdotes;

5. A discussion of the plain language versus precision debate circulating in legal circles;

6. A forecast of the legal future;

7. A memorialization of Freedman's evidently putative (or frustrated) stand-up routine; and

8. A handbook for pellucid legal writing.

Positively, there is probably something for everyone here. Negatively, its lack of clear categorization bespeaks aimlessness.

Sometimes excerpts cross multiple categories. "Criminal codes suffer from an ancient prejudice: the idea that each individual law, with all its conditions and exceptions, must be packed into a single sentence. The logic behind this practice is that a sentence is a 'self-contained unit,' and therefore one cannot with any confidence modify one sentence with another sentence. As a matter of English composition, the notion expressed in the preceding sentence is absurd, as this sentence demonstrates." (pp. 116-17.) This quote could fairly exemplify categories 5, 7 and 8, and perhaps others.

Freedman continues his comic commentary: "One California penal statute consists of a single sentence of 150 words.... The whole problem with criminal law, one might say, is that the sentences are too long." (p. 117.) Cue rim-shot.

I credit Freedman for demystifying the bane of many bar examinees: "The Rule Against Perpetuities." "The Rule of Perpetuities arose to ensure that title to property will vest absolutely at some definite point, so that the heirs will be free to sell it. According to the Rule, you may not leave property in limbo for longer than the perpetuities period, an amount of time that is measured by the lifetime of a real person identified in your will (referred to as a life in being) plus twenty-one years." (p. 162; bolding in original.) Freedman does a nice job explaining this arcane doctrine over three-and-a-half pages. However, one wonders why.

In all, the book builds a strong case for plain legal writing. Along the way, Freedman's wit is displayed with equal vigor. Not a bad combination.