Be Smart About Abbreviations

June 10, 2014

journal writingHere’s a good reason to avoid excessive abbreviations: judges don’t like them. And when you do things judges don’t like, bad things happen.

Every lawyer has read (and maybe written) a brief that contains an “alphabet soup” of acronyms and initialisms — particularly when the case involves government entities. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using acronyms and initialisms (and other abbreviations). Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes it’s actually smart and effective to do so. But you should be judicious — and judicially friendly — when you do it.

(By the way, if you don’t know already, you should learn the difference between abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms. When you explain it at the next cocktail party, everyone will say YSS — as in “you’re so smart.”)

The most obvious reason to avoid too many initialisms, of course, is to avoid confusion. For example, sometimes the initialism you’re using has another meaning in another context. (See YSS. See also WTF.) And sometimes it’s not a risk of multiple meanings, but a risk of simply losing your reader. I once was asked to help with a petition for rehearing in a case that involved two parties with similar names. Let’s say they were called American Manufacturing Company and American Manufacturing Systems. In the trial court and even in the initial appellate briefing, both sides had abbreviated the parties as AMC and AMS — and if the risk of confusion wasn’t already obvious enough, it turned out that the appellate court had already, in its initial opinion, mistakenly referred to AMC where it clearly had meant to refer to AMS.

You don’t want that to happen. (ICYDK.)

But another, deeper reason to avoid simple initialisms is that they usually aren’t doing any rhetorical work for you. Nietzsche said:

What things are called is incomparably more important than what they are.

Such is the power of rhetoric and word choice in persuasive writing. If your client’s name is American Manufacturing Company, you lose all the ethos and pathos that is packed into that name when you reduce it to “AMC.” You should be elevating and championing your client as “American Manufacturing,” and reducing your opponent to the impotent “AM Systems,” instead of reducing both parties to the confusing “AMC vs. AMS.”

In short, don’t just blindly avoid acronyms and initialisms because somebody said they can be confusing. Instead, use them or avoid them because you’re thinking strategically about your pronouns, for persuasive purposes. You don’t want to lose the credibility of “NASA” by referring instead to the “Space Administration,” just because you’re trying to avoid acronyms. But if you represent the KKK — even if it’s in an “uncontroversial” property dispute — you should probably come up with a more favorable way to refer to your client (such as “the Owner”).

Oh, and while we’re at it: stop abbreviating the names of parties or other entities with unnecessary parentheticals. Chances are, for example, you do not need to do this:

Plaintiff Baylor University Medical Center (“Baylor”) respectfully asks the Court… 

Unless you have a situation like the one I described above, where multiple parties have remarkably similar names, there’s very little chance that the Court or anyone else will have trouble knowing who you’re referring to if you simply say “Baylor” the next time you refer to the plaintiff. You don’t need the parenthetical at all in this case. Reduce your word count by trusting that your reader can figure out that “Baylor” is short for “Baylor University Medical Center.”

And if you do need (or want) to abbreviate the name of an entity in a way that isn’t completely obvious, you can use the parenthetical — but you don’t necessarily need the quotation marks. They’re optional. So your parenthetical could look like this:

Defendant American Manufacturing Systems (AM Systems) raises three meritless arguments against an injunction…

On the other hand, if you think quotation marks are needed to increase clarity, then go ahead and use them. That’s really the key concern here: be clear. Make your writing easier to understand, and it’ll usually be more effective. TTFN!