Striking a Blow Against Legalese: Adobe’s Legal Department Open Sources Its Plain-English Style Guide

Adobe’s legal department is striking a blow against legalese today. It is releasing to the legal community at large the style guide it developed to help its own inhouse staff write legal documents in plain English and avoid legalese.

Mike Dillon

Adobe GC Mike Dillon

Adobe is releasing The Adobe Legal Department Style Guide (embedded below) under a Creative Commons Atribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License so that others in the legal industry can use and adapt it for their own legal departments and law firms.

“We want to release this under a Creative Commons attribution and let others take our work product and make it their own in the hope that as a profession we’ll change the way we communicate,” Michael Dillon, Adobe’s senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary, told me in an interview last week.

“When you write a blog, you write to be engaging and accessible, but we don’t write our legal documents that way” said Dillon, who was one of the first GCs in the U.S. to have his own blog and who still writes both for his personal blog and an Adobe blog. “So we’ve tried to rethink the way we’re writing everything.”

To accomplish this, Dillon assembled a global team of a half-dozen “very passionate people” within his legal department. He also brought in outside experts such as Bryan Garner, often considered the leading authority on clear and effective legal writing.

Succinct, Accessible

The result, not surprisingly, is a succinct, accessible guide of just 30 pages — a sort-of Strunk and Whitefor the legal profession. It is a guide not only to language but also to layout, with a section detailing basic design principles to enhance the readability of documents such as contracts.

It includes some of what you would expect — use active voice, keep sentences short — and some of what you might not expect — such as an admonition against using the archaic but common phrase, “IN WITNESS whereof the parties hereunto set their hands and seal the day and year first hereinbefore written.”

The guide even has its own haiku:

Clear Legal Writing
Represents Brand
Delights Customers

Adobe’s legal department deployed the guide internally last year and used it to rewrite all the company’s sales agreements to make them more understandable. That had an unanticipated benefit, Dillon said.

“Before, you’d see the sales people always wanting to use the customer’s agreements. As a result, you’d have friction between sales and legal. Now it’s completely flipped — our sales people are advocating our agreements.”

In fact, sales-staff support for the plain-English agreements was part of what led to Dillon’s decision to open-source the guide. Adobe’s sales staff began encountering situations where customers’ own in-house or outside counsel were pushing for overly complex revisions.

“We thought, what if we promulgate this through the profession and see if we can get some traction,” Dillon recalled.

Benefits in Efficiency in Savings

While making legal documents clearer is a laudable goal in itself, the style guide has also produced benefits in efficiency and savings, Dillon said.

“I frequently joke that attorneys are the greatest sampling artists in the world. We mix and sample clauses from a variety of sources. Anyone who says they’re writing from scratch, I don’t believe them. When we all use the style guide and write the same way in the department, it makes it much more efficient.”

Another benefit to Adobe has been in reduced translation costs. As an example, Dillon said his department used the guide to reduce a key licensing agreement from more than 40 pages to 13. That saved tens of thousands of dollars in translating the agreement for all the different countries it is used in.

Dillon cited two other benefits:

  • Enhanced employee engagement. “We’ve made this huge effort to rewrite our company policies so that employees will want to read them and will understand them when they do.”
  • Abbreviated negotiation cycles. “We’re finding its taking less time to get deals done because agreements are shorter–it takes less time.”

Dillon recognizes that he and his staff are not the first to push for clear language in legal documents. “There have been a few voices in the wilderness,” he said. “We wanted to add ours.”

But he hopes that by open-sourcing the guide, others will pick it up and run with it. “I think this is right for the current times.”


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  • Dave Marr

    Read it. Love it. Adopting it. Happy to contribute any changes if we have any!

  • Van

    Will Adobe publish its forms and templates, too? If we can standardize all the commonly used agreements that will save time and legal fees. Annotated agreements and negotiation guides will also help set a common basic level of understanding and will, therefore, reduce the negotiation cycles and costs.

  • I’m no expert on open-source, but I’m pretty sure that releasing a pdf under a Creative Commons license isn’t “open source.” Now, if the document were available online in a collaboratively editable format – such as in Google Docs, Office 365 (Word or Powerpoint), a wiki or perhaps Adobe’s own InCopy (though I’m not familiar with that app’s capabilities) – that would be open source.

    • Open source means that Adobe welcomes others to freely copy and modify its document. The license says that others are free to “remix, transform, and build upon the material.”