Symbolic Legal Standards

Yesterday I stated a theory that poor legal writing (in transactions) is the result of negotiation rather than tradition. What if contracts weren’t written with words, but rather, with symbols?
At the bottom of this page is the Creative Commons license for this work. It has all sorts of tiny print, but it can be summed up in three symbols. Isn’t that much easier to read than all the small print? Wouldn’t it be easier to negotiate to just ask for different concepts instead of different words? The words represent the concepts anyway, but changing them requires conformity to the rules of grammar. This makes it difficult to express a substantive change because the negotiator is constrained by the context. He has to make his proposed phrase fit with as few word changes as possible (or risk loosing cooperative ground with the opposing side).
Legal concepts are more like symbols than words. There are all sorts of “magic words” that have come to possess established legal meaning. They are “magic” because the can invoke a particular concept without interpretation. Courts have already decided what they mean. Laypersons don’t know which phrases to use to convey the legal concept they have in mind. Symbols, in this context, increase clarity, make it easier to suggest change (the focus moves from wording to concepts), and are even machine readable. Think of a legal symbolic language as a technology standard. Everyone could communicate with perfect clarity because we’d all be using the same building blocks. Ambiguity and confusion are the result of expression of ideas, but the ideas can be expressed in a standard form that would allow no room for alternative interpretation: legal symbols.
A system of legal symbols could dramatically increase efficiency. I could feed two contracts into a computer and quickly determine which concepts are different – not just which words are different. As an added bonus, it would be easier to see what legal concepts are left out of an agreement. A standard error message could read, “Contract contains no governing law clause.” Lengthy “boilerplate” language could be condensed to a few standard symbols.

3 thoughts on “Symbolic Legal Standards”

  1. How does one verbally communicate a symbol? If the symbol represents an idea, there should be an equally easy way to convey the idea in fewer words.

  2. Yes – that’s true. What I’m getting at is a standard – one that can be represented visually and electronically, as well as verbally (but perhaps not written). The idea is to forego the syntax, which is variable, and go straight to the concept, which should be constant. That way, instead of advocating for different wording (which represents a different idea), you go directly to advocating for the different idea.
    Over the phone, you’d still say “I want the term to be five years.” On paper, and in electronic communication, however, you’d see the symbol for “term = 5 years” and your software would know that your proposal is for a 5 year agreement.

  3. Brilliant idea – I presume there would still have to be a “master copy” of symbol definition (in words) kept in the national/state lawbooks or something like that… but even the finer fine print could be broken down into symbols for various possible exceptions to the basic symbolic rules. I think you’re on to something…

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