Ethel and Lucy will Live Again in Legalese

The periods of percolation that in my twenties I called “writer’s block,” always pass. Like a good story, they always have a surprise at the end. In fact, it is the surprise that makes the story end.

When I decided to go to law school, I was opting out of a poor-starving-artist lifestyle. I redirected my writing talents toward making clear, lucid legal documents. For thirty years, I was regularly thwarted in my hope of finding beauty, symmetry and human connection in wills, trust and contracts. The final straw came from an innocuous purchase of software that “automated” the document production I had struggled with for years.

The software was the lawyers’ professional knockoff to Legal Zoom and it cost much more.  But, with the entry of a few names into a data base, it produced an attorney-made revocable living trust, a will, a Power of Attorney, an Advance Health Care Directive, a HIPAA waiver, a Declaration of Trust, a Memorandum of Trust, a Disposition of Personal Property, along with cover letters, explanations for clients, and, of course, an index to compile all of these documents into a three ring binder.   I used this system for the final year of my practice as my business coach advised, and spent the additional hours necessary to explain all of these ponderous documents to the dear clients who, of course, could not understand them by reading them. The coach was right: it was a much more lucrative business plan, lowering my overhead for support staff, creating more client contact in “billable hours” and keeping me updated about changes in the law. Except that I was miserable.

Whereas some other “whereas-ing” stuffed shirt might feel empowered by decoding for a client “a corporate trustee shall be entitled to receive, out of the income and principal of the trust fund, compensation for its services hereunder to be determined by the application of the current rates then charged by the trustee for trusts of similar size and character,” it brought me no joy. I had thought I could improve the writing and communications between lawyer and client.  But I found myself explaining that this sentence in legalese meant simply that a bank could charge whatever rates it could get through the regulators. I hated that I was selling this type of prose as my work product—and it hurt me that I was setting people up for eventual exploitation by an ever-greedy financial system.

So I am not doing estate planning any more. Instead, I am creating domestic holding companies to protect the assets of clients, not from taxes and legitimate creditors but from the lawyers, financial professionals and scoundrels who are on the prowl. And in the process, my clients’ estates may be preserved for the next generation.

My big breakthrough came when I read the following quote from The Donald: “The Oval Office would be an amazing place to negotiate. It would command immediate respect from the other side, immediate understanding about the nation’s priorities.” [NY Times 5/5/2016 by Patrick Healy]. Trump, a brilliant power monger, has manipulated himself into command of a real estate empire and The White House is the next venue where he intends to thrive and expand his influence.  He needs a heavy crown to hold down his hair.  Maybe he’ll fashion a golden scepter as well.

I walk and drive around a city that reflects the murderous militarization of America and it pushes me toward depression and despair. The election of the well-travelled Hilary Clinton offers no real prospect of relief in a polarized, war-torn world. I will, of course, work against The Donald. But I am going to follow his lead and think of winning more real estate on the chess board. He wants to be king. I would prefer not to be his pawn (or his knight, bishop or queen). I’d like to be the jester who survives by my wits.

My legal writing now has an attitude. Still it does the job, but the language is true and the purpose is stated: “The ownership of this company is disclosed to the Internal Revenue Service and not to any other person.” And when I write these documents, I use interesting characters as placeholders. My most recent template is “The Lucy and Ethel Operating Agreement for the Ricardo Cuba-America Limited Company.”

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