The handwritten notes in the margin of the legal brief were brutally direct. "You have to make your point more clearly," one comment said. "What does this mean?" another asked. A third began with "Awful."
They were scrawled by an aspiring actress and film director who holds one of the most unusual legal jobs in the county - full-time editor for a California law firm, charged with transforming the incomprehensible jargon that most lawyers love into understandable English.
While there is a growing national movement against the arcane language of the law - which Yale University Law Professor Fred Rodell describes as "almost deliberately designed to confuse and muddle the ideas it purports to convey" - Alexandra Seros works for one of the few law firms in the country actively trying to change that language.
For some reason lawyers think they are writers. But they can't necessarily write," said Seros, not a lawyer herself.
She reads every piece of paper that goes out of Fatem, Berger & Norton, the largest law firm in the southern California city of Santa Monica. That means every brief, every legal argument - even "the littlest letter" that leaves the firm.
"Jerry Fatem (the senior partner) figures than if I don't understand it neither will the judges nor other attorneys nor a client," said Seros, 30, who is writing a television script in her spare time.
In addition to editing legal documents, Seros tries to package them attractively. She leaves plenty of white space on every page so they do not look crowded and are easier to read. Occasionally, she throws in a pointed cartoon, and sometimes she underlines key sentences so a judge will not miss them.
Fatem believes that such clear writing and attractive packaging wins cases for his firm.
"I have the feeling that as court processes have become more and more pressured, the delivery of our message in a way that is most understood by our audience gives us a significant edge in the outcome of litigation," he said.
"We never know for sure that our well-written briefs are important," he continued. "But a number of judges have said our written work is the best they've ever seen. It's not that we are brighter than other lawyers. It's just that our work is presented in a way that is more easily comprehended."
He hired Seros, a family friend, three years ago because he felt the firm's briefs and arguments could be more sharply written. At first, there was some friction in the firm. "Lawyers," said Fatem, "are not used to having anyone laying hands on their words, which they think of as their children."
Now, Seros said, the lawyers are accustomed to her and welcome her criticism.
Seros found that lawyers supposedly trained to highlight main points of their arguments, often hide what they are really trying to say. Sometimes they are ambiguous, as if afraid to tell the court what they really want, she said.
In one case, for example, she admonished the lawyer in a margin note to be more powerful in his conclusion to show how the other side "is unreliable and irresponsible."
Despite his firm's success in employing Seros, Fatem said the idea is not catching on in southern California. "I talk about it in lawyer circles, and people just don't believe me. The idea is really unthinkable," he said.
Yet there are scattered signs from the rest of the country that the notion is catching.
For instance, New York state has passed a "plain English law" requiring that all contracts with consumers be written in everyday language. Predictably, the law has drawn opposition from lawyers who say that using plain English will cause more confusion and lead to rewriting thousands of standard legal forms.
Nonetheless, the plain English movement is growing. The National Bank of Washington rewrote its consumer installment loan contracts so they would be readily understood, and Citibank in New York City replaced "legalese" in its consumer loan, mortgages and bank card contracts.
Only a handful of law firms are moving into the same direction. Kutak, Rock & Hule, a fast-growing firm with its main office in Omaha, sometimes uses Dean Pohlenz, a former newspaper reporter and congressional aide who is its research director, as an editor for important legal documents.
Pohlenz said he treads over them "pretty damn gingerly," mostly correcting bad grammar. "The firm take advantage of the fact I know a semicolon from a colon," he said.
"Some of the lawyers are good writers," he continued. "It's a matter of keeping their consciousness up."
After 20 months on the job, he said he is just "starting to get some drop-in business" from lawyers bringing their memos and briefs. "They really want to learn," he said.
Elizabeth Kaplan, a writer familiar with legal language, has started a business as an editorial consultant to law firms. Her first advertisement in the current issue of District Lawyer, asks, "Shouldn't the form of your brief be as good as its content?"
"I am trying to tell the Washington legal community that they need my help, but I honestly can't say that business is booming," Kaplan said.
Seros is about to leave Fadem, Berger & Norton in California to work fulltime on her television script. The firm received more than 100 applications for her job, which pays about $15,000 a year, as a result of an advertisement in Editor & Publisher.
In New York, Wall Street's largest law firm, Shearman & Sterling, has taken steps to improve the writing ability of its younger lawyers, whose starting salary is $28,000 a year.
Freelance writing teacher Lewis Spence was hired to give a six-week seminar to about 20 first and second year associates who volunteered to take the course. The aim, a firm official said, was to teach them to be concise and to the point.