Help Wanted (and Needed!)

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Otto Stockmeyer is not looking for a job. But he has been reading legal help-wanted ads and has noticed something disturbing.

Many law firm help-wanted ads demand excellent writing skills, which is good. But too many of these same ads don’t display such skills, which is bad.

Take this example: “Prominent Michigan law firm is seeking a motivated associate to join our East Lansing litigation team .... Applicant must have strong academic credentials, excellent writing and organizational abilities.” (Would that include an understanding of the principle of parallelism?)

Here’s another, from a Novi, Michigan, law firm: “Excellent research and writing skills, as well as solid oral communication skills are required.” (Parenthetical phrases need commas at BOTH ends. And phrasal adjectives require hyphens, i.e. oral-communication skills.)

Recently, several firms have used verbal when they meant oral. A Warren, Michigan, law firm said, “Candidate must have excellent verbal and writing skills.” A Farmington, Michigan, firm is looking for “Excellent verbal and written skills.” A Lansing, Michigan, law office ad said, “The ideal candidate should ... have superior written and verbal communication skills.” (Verbal means expressed in words, which can be written or oral. Bryan Garner, The Elements of Style, 2d ed., p. 145. Verbal for oral is a common misuse, but if excellence is sought, it should likewise be demonstrated.)

Garner recognizes that some people feel oral has acquired a prurient connotation. “If you think of ‘oral’ in a narrow sexual sense, you should immediately wash your mouth out with soap,” he writes. My suggestion: use speaking skills instead.

A Southfield, Michigan, law firm advertised “Strong writing and organizational skills required ... Candidate should be self-motivated, with a friendly disposition that would enjoy working in a busy and productive office.” (This needs a comma after disposition and substitution of who for that. And a polished writer would shorten with a friendly disposition to friendly.)

A family-law firm’s ad for a legal assistant said, “Strong phone skills; as well as written and oral communication skills are a must.” (This sentence would be stronger if the semicolon were a comma, and another comma followed the word skills.)

A West Michigan firm sought someone with “exceptional writing and communication skills. The ideal candidates will be members in good standings [sic] of the State Bar.” (It’s just a typo, sure, but exceptional writers catch typos.)

Most recently a defense firm sought an attorney “to assist in handling employment claims, professional liability claims and/or construction related claims. Strong writing skills required.” (A person with strong writing skills should know that legal-writing gurus Bryan Garner and Ken Adams both condemn and/or as a gruesome abomination. Our own guru, Distinguished Professor Emeritus Joseph Kimble, also wishes that lawyers would shun it. Joseph Kimble, Lifting the Fog of Legalese, p. 155. And, again, good writers hyphenate phrasal adjectives.)

I am quite certain that WMU-Cooley students who successfully complete our legal-writing curriculum are capable of spotting and correcting these sorts of faults. Law firms should have no difficulty attracting applicants from this law school with strong language skills. Demonstratively, such skills are needed.

stockmeyer_otto_sm-5Professor Stockmeyer is a past president of Scribes, the American Society of Legal Writers, and a frequent contributor to legal periodicals and blogs.

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