Dave Hitz, co-founder of NetApp, has an amusing blog post up that looks at "lawyer speak" from an efficency point of view. In Think of a Will as a Program You Can Only Test By Dying he considers the number of characters required to get a simple goal accomplished in both C and Legal Language (a will in this case):

The smallest "useful" computer program simply prints "Hello World!". It does almost nothing, so most of the program is overhead. In C, it takes 53 characters of program to print 12 bytes of text Ė an overhead factor of 4.4.
Iíve been reading LEGAL this week, because some friends of mine are writing their will. I agreed to be the trustee in case both parents die while the kids are still young. It occurred to me that the "hello world" of wills is this:
Leave everything to my spouse. If s/he is dead, then split it evenly among my kids.
This is pretty much what my friends' will said, but to express these 83 bytes of idea took 18,700 bytes of LEGAL, for an overhead factor of 225. That is, LEGAL is 51 times less efficient than C.


He goes on to answer the question "Why is LEGAL such a shitty language?" and finds that, among other problems, "it doesnít use modern techniques like subroutines or standard libraries." Doing so would save a ton of time and effort. It'd probably also reduce the lawyer's income.

As he concludes:

Of course, there is one additional reason that legal documents are so long: Many lawyers are paid by the hour.


I'm not quite sure why this amused me as much as it did. Perhaps it's my programming background combined with the fact that I've been reading more legal documents recently. Either way, I can definitely see his points. The legal profession could learn a thing or two from good programming practices.

If you've ever heard stories about companies that experiment with paying their programmers based on the number of lines of code written (or number of bugs fixed per week), you'd understand how crazy this really could be.

Posted by jzawodn at August 21, 2007 10:14 AM

Reader Comments
# Bob Lee said:

I've noticed the same thing about languages vs. specifications. The grammar is usually pretty concise and non-repetitious, but you can't say the same about the rest of the specification.

on August 21, 2007 10:22 AM
# Fred said:

Actually, Trusts & Estates lawyers (the ones writing wills) are rarely paid by the hour, at least for basic work. Back when I did that, we charged a flat fee. The same is true for basic bankruptcy and real estate work.

The simple answer is that legalese developed gradually over several centuries of English common law. We've largely purged extraneous Latin from the lexicon, and there's a large and growing movement to simplify legal writing, especially among younger lawyers.

on August 21, 2007 10:31 AM
# Jacob said:

Legal does have language reuse; the jargon for it is boiler-plate. Rather than say CallModuleToDoStuff() you copy the exact same text into every document. Also plenty of legal terms carry a lot of baggage and implied meaning. Leases often have phrases like, "joint and several" which implies plenty about the nature of the agreement.

Overall, though, point made.

on August 21, 2007 10:54 AM
# wendy said:

In addition to what Fred says above, lawyers generally aren't paid by the hour but instead by 6 minute increments. I suppose that 18,000 words is quite a few 6 minute increments if they aren't charging a flat fee for the will.

on August 21, 2007 12:21 PM
# Andy said:

I've always thought that in a sane world legal documents would be written in something like a programming language -- because then their interpretation would not be subjective (or, given the nature of legal documents, nearly not be subjective).

Of course, we don't live in a sane world, and nobody has enough money to force us to do so. Shame.

on August 21, 2007 12:27 PM
# Brendan Taylor said:

I've often thought that it would help if they used permanent, unique identifiers for concepts, rather than words which are ambiguous and change in meaning.

on August 21, 2007 12:37 PM
# Dave said:

As a lawyer and software developer, I would say in defense of LEGAL that the typical Hello World program doesn't need to defend against malicious hacking, and run on systems that are hundreds of years old while anticipating operating system and language specification changes over the next hundred.

For that matter, most wills are drafted for a flat fee.

Lastly, most wills I've seen would qualify as veritable paragons of elegance and efficiency when compared to most enterprise software I've seen.

While we're considering paying programmers by the line, how about exposing programmers to malpractice liability?

on August 21, 2007 12:41 PM
# Lindsay said:

The lawyer's job is to Protect Her Client.

To do this job right, the attorney has to think of everything that possibly could harm her client. In essence, attorneys are paid to be inefficient, because anticipating risk is not an efficient task.

Writing a program to perform a specific function and being able to fix it after you find bugs is very different than anticipating every possible risk and condensing those risks into English and Legalease as efficiently as possible - after all, the attorney can't ask his client to sign Contract 2.0 after he finds the bugs.

on August 21, 2007 06:09 PM
# Alex Timmins said:

Dave gets it right. I'm also a software engineer who has just trained to become a lawyer, just need to find a job to finish qualifying now (UK).

I started off with a similar view "why all this stupid English". But having studied as an elective Wills I have partially changed my tune.

The key that gets forgotten (or is unknown until you have worked with wills) is that the language, specific phrases means through precedent specific things. So to make sure you get a particular result you reuse the well tested piece of code.

Your particular example (in the UK) would meet many varied problems which a lot of the other will paragraphs cover (such as needing to explicit in case the of grandchildren whose parents are dead).

In short I changed my mind to after adequate study to think reusing appropriately is efficient and in many ways it's just a break out of the flame war of saying that C is best, no C++ is best, no Java is best (the chronology is meant to be indicative there, Knuth's reasons for using assembler really).

on August 22, 2007 01:26 AM
# Bruce said:

Learn to spell efficiency

on August 22, 2007 03:32 PM
# David said:

Timmins, your ability to use the language is so bad I wouldn't want you as a programmer OR a lawyer.

on August 23, 2007 04:19 AM
# esoomllub said:

I think if we outsourced our legal needs to India (ala programmers), US lawyers would find a way to be more efficient in price at least. Of course, with our government practically run by lawyers, outsourcing lawyers will never be a real option. (Of course this is said with tongue in cheek, so lawyers save your legal jargon rebuttals and self-agrandising justifications for someone who cares)

on August 23, 2007 08:10 AM
# Joe Bruno said:

The shortest will ever:

"All to Mother".

It was unchallengeable.

on September 4, 2007 12:09 AM
# phpworker said:

Yeah, I am paid by hour, no matter how hard / soft my work is that day.

Joe: the shorter one, I suppose, would be: "All to Mom" :)

on May 21, 2009 02:10 AM
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