Denver Bar Association
February 2000
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Bad Writing Wins Awards

by Bill Haltom, Esq.

My fellow lawyers, here is some news that can make us all proud. For the second consecutive year, a lawyer has won the nation’s top award for bad writing.
'I've had an interest in bad writing for many years. Law school put a certain polish on my badness, and 20 years of practice have helper.'

David Hirsch, a 47-year-old public defender in Seattle, was recently named the recipient of the 1999 Bulwer-Lytton Purple Prose Award. This coveted award is named in honor of the 19th century British novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who once began a book with the immortal words, "It was a dark and stormy night."


The Bulwer-Lytton Purple Prose Award is the Heisman Trophy of lousy writing. For more than 20 years, the award has been given annually in recognition of the worst opening sentence of a novel. Traditionally lawyers have dominated this competition, proving beyond all doubt that we lawyers are the worst writers in America.

Mr. Hirsch’s winning entry in this year’s Bulwer-Lytton Purple Prose competition truly met the low standards of non-creative writing by lawyers.

Here in its breathtaking entirety is Mr. Hirsch’s award-winning prose:

"Rain, violent torrents of it, rain like fetid water from a god-sized pot of pasta strained through a sky-wide colander, rain as no one knew it, flaming the shuttering trees, whipping the white-capped waters, violating the sodden firmament, purging purity and filth alike from the land, rain without mercy, without surcease, incontinent rain, turning to intermittent showers overnight with partial clearing Tuesday."

No doubt about it, when it comes to lousy prose, David Hirsch has the write stuff.

Hirsch modestly credits law school and 20 years of law practice for his ability to write such terrible prose. In a recent interview with the National Law Journal, Hirsch said, "I’ve had an interest in bad writing for many years. Law school put a certain polish on my badness, and 20 years of practice helped."

Amen, Brother Hirsch. No truer words were more poorly written. When it comes to bad writing, no one can hold a pen or a Dictaphone compared to America’s lawyers.

We lawyers are truly America’s worst writers. No one can match our ability to take a clear, cogent thought and translate it into legal language that one can decipher only with the assistance of the Rosetta Stone.

Twenty-five years ago, when I entered law school, I could write simple declarative sentences. Having received an undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee, I was capable of writing clear and concise sentences such as the following:

"It’s football time in Tennessee!"

"How about them [sic] Vols?"

"Where’s the stadium at [sic]?"

But during my three dark and stormy years at the University of Tennessee College of Law, I was taught not only to think like a lawyer, but to write like one. I was taught to use legal words such as "aforementioned" and "above-referenced" and "hereinafter" and "subsequently."

After I graduated from law school, my writing only got worse. I actually found myself dictating incomprehensible prose such as, "Comes now the affiant, and after being duly sworn, states as follows, and further affiant sayeth not."

Also, as a lawyer, I learned that I should never use a simple word when a longer and more obscure one would do.

For example, when I was just starting out as a lawyer, I would make the mistake of writing a clear sentence such as the following: "After her car wreck, the plaintiff had to go to the hospital."

But after just a few years of law practice, I was able to write the following: "Subsequent to her automobile accident, the plaintiff incurred extensive and permanent disabilities to her body and person, necessitating immediate emergent care."

I also learned that in legal writing it was important to be redundant and to use as many words as possible, cluttering my prose with parenthetical cross-references. For example, I learned to write, "The party of the first part, (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part), hereinafter releases, discharges, unties, unbinds, kicks, bites, and tosses away the party of the second part (hereinafter referred to as the party of the second part) from all claims, demands, causes of action, insults, funny looks, politically incorrect jokes, snide remarks, or any claims of any nature whatsoever involving the above-referenced automobile accident and any subsequent emergent and necessary medical care to the body and person of the party of the first part caused in any manner by the actions of the party of the second part, although the party of the second part denies any responsibility for the above-referenced incident between the party of the first part and the party of the second part and in fact doesn’t have a clue as to how this all got started in the aforementioned first place."

Well, after nearly a quarter century of training in the legal field of bad writing, I believe the time has come for I (or rather me), like the inspirational David Hirsch before me, to scale the Mount Everest of bad prose. Yes, my fellow lawyers, I’ve decided that subsequent to my aforementioned 25 years of bad writing, the time had come for me to enter the Bulwer-Lytton Purple Prose Contest for the year 2000. Here’s my entry for next year’s competition:

"It was a dark and stormy lawsuit, the sort of endless litigation that winds and serpentines through years of hearings and depositions and interrogatories and affiants who are duly sworn and deponents who further sayeth not and requests for production of enough date-stamped documents to threaten the Amazon Rain Forest, until it all culminates with the party of the first part and the party of the second part and their counsel sitting like withering potted plaints in a court-ordered mediation session on a long hot August day in an un-air-conditioned courtroom in Henry county."

Well, take that, John Grisham! Eat your heart out, Harper Lee! That was just the first line of my new novel, "The Pelican Boxer Shorts," soon to be a major motion picture.

And there’s plenty more bad prose where that came from.

So call me Ishmael. Call me a cab. But above all, call me and tell me that I’m the winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Purple Prose Award for the year 2000.

Further the author writeth not. The End.

Reprinted from the Tennessee Bar Journal. William H. Haltom Jr. is a partner in the Memphis, Tenn. firm, Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell.

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