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Absolute Power

Although he may have escaped criminal jeopardy, Dominique Strauss-Kahn still faces a civil suit from Nafissatou Diallo, the world’s most famous hotel maid.

In moving to dismiss her complaint, his able lawyers claimed that “DSK,” as he’s known in France, should enjoy the same absolute immunity from civil suits that Washington diplomats enjoy from parking tickets.

The fact section is brilliant, juxtaposing Strauss-Kahn’s lofty role at the IMF with the indignity of his arrest and confinement. In one paragraph, he’s poised to meet with Angela Merkel; in the next, he’s trapped at Rikers Island.

The legal argument makes a similarly strong case for immunity, but the prose bogs down a bit.

Here are six ways to tighten DSK’s writing—and your own:

1. Share and share alike

Here’s a great way to add flow: When you write a complex sentence, lead with a word or thought from the sentence before.

Consider these two sentences from DSK’s Introduction:

The United States is not a party to the Specialized Agencies Convention. Nevertheless, as we explain below, the absolute immunity that the Specialized Agencies Convention affords executive heads of specialized agencies, like Mr. Strauss-Kahn, has received such overwhelming accession from member countries of the United Nations that it has achieved the status of what is known as “customary international law.”

The second sentence is tough going, not because it’s especially long but because it hits you over the head with a new topic: absolute immunity. Try spring-boarding from the first sentence instead, linking “The United States” with the other U.N. member countries that you want the court to emulate. Also put “absolute immunity” closer to what you have to say about it:

The United States is not a party to the Specialized Agencies Convention. Yet as we explain below, so many U.N. member countries have granted specialized-agency heads absolute immunity that it is now considered “customary international law.”

Those changes also halve the second sentence from 48 words to 24.

2. With no due respect

Whenever you see “with respect to” or “with regard to,” cut it if you can, or change it to “on,” “about,” “for,” or “as for.” I promise that you’ll never long for the original.

What do you notice about this sentence, for instance?

In summary, with respect to the privileges and immunities enjoyed by an executive head of a specialized agency, the Specialized Agencies Convention incorporate the absolute privileges and immunities accorded to diplomatic envoys under the Vienna Convention.

You guessed it: This sentence is a great example of the “With respect to X, X” habit that traps so many of us lawyers.

Try this instead:

In sum, an executive head of a specialized agency enjoys the same privileges and immunities under the Specialized Agencies Convention that diplomatic envoys enjoy under the Vienna Convention.

3. Notwithstanding “notwithstanding”

Unless you draft contracts or legislation, see how many hours or days you can go without typing the word “notwithstanding.” At best, it’s heavy-handed. At worst, it lets everyone know how worried you are about whatever it is that you’re trying to hide:

Nevertheless, as we explain below, the absolute immunity accorded to executive heads of specialized agencies has achieved the status of customary international law, notwithstanding the United States’ non-ratification of the Convention.

I’m all for subordinating bad facts, as explained in Point Made, but don’t try to hide them. Instead, spell them out with a poker face and put them at the start of the sentence, not at the end:

As we explain below, however, even though the United States has not ratified the Convention, the absolute immunity granted to executive heads of specialized agencies is now considered customary international law.

4. “Of” note

Cutting “of” is another way to quicken your pace. Even if “notwithstanding” doesn’t bug you in the example above, “non-ratification of” should scream “Find a verb!” In the next examples, you’ll meet many other “of” phrases that you could cut or trim:

Before:

Mr. Strauss-Kahn enjoyed absolute immunity under customary international law not only while he was the head of the IMF, but also for the period of time after he had resigned from his post.

After:

Mr. Strauss-Kahn enjoyed absolute immunity under customary international law not only while he headed the IMF, but also after he resigned from his post.

Before:

The Court may consider evidence outside of the complaint in considering a motion to dismiss for lack of personal or subject-matter jurisdiction, including one based on an assertion of immunity.

After:

The Court may consider evidence outside the complaint in considering a motion to dismiss for lack of personal or subject-matter jurisdiction, including one that asserts immunity.

Before:

Mr. Strauss-Kahn was arraigned . . . on a criminal complaint based on the same false allegations that form the basis of the complaint in this action.

After:

Mr. Strauss-Kahn was arraigned . . . on a criminal complaint based on the same false allegations that underlie this Complaint.

Before:

Both the United States Supreme Court and the New York Court of Appeals have recognized the existence of “customary international law.”

After:

Both the United States Supreme Court and the New York Court of Appeals have recognized “customary international law.”

5. Here and now

Also avoid affixing your points to the reader’s “examination” or “review” of those points—or telling the reader what to “look to.” Just make your case and disappear.

Take these two sentences:

To determine whether a legal rule or principle has achieved the force of customary international law, the court must look to whether the rule or principle is “a general and consistent practice of states followed by them from a sense of legal obligation.” An examination of state practice is therefore paramount to determining the existence and content of customary international law.

The first sentence is too neutral, and the second sentence is too obscure. In both sentences, telling the court to “look to” and “examine” and “determine” things clouds your points.

Consider something like this instead:

A rule becomes customary international law when it is “a general and consistent practice of states followed by them from a sense of legal obligation.” State practice thus informs whether and how customary international law applies.

Cutting the chaff also trims this passage from 61 words to 36.

6. Parallel lives

One last way to jazz up your prose: Include more parallel constructions.

In this first sentence, hear how the rhythm in the first two elements breaks once you get to the third:

We are aware of no nation that denied Mr. Strauss-Kahn entry because of his absolute immunity, objected to such immunity, or conditioned Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s passage to and from its borders on his acquiescing to lesser immunity.

To maintain parallel structure, all three elements should pivot around “immunity.” So try this:

We are aware of no nation that denied Mr. Strauss-Kahn entry because of his absolute immunity, objected to that immunity, or forced him to agree to lesser immunity as a condition of crossing its borders.

Now let’s cross over to another parallelism problem:

International law is clear that immunity does not cease immediately upon termination from a diplomatic post; rather, termination of immunity has both temporal and geographic components.

Semicolons can sharpen contrasts, as explained in Point Made. But you need to put those contrasts in parallel form—and drop the “rather” or “however.”

So try this:

Under international law, immunity does not cease immediately upon termination from a diplomatic post; it ceases only after enough time has passed and the diplomat has left the country.

Let’s take one final example. Have you noticed how many of us lawyers love “not only . . . but” constructions like this one?

[N]ot only is there no direct conflict between international law and the [International Organizations Immunity Act], but application of the absolute immunity rule here serves the underlying purpose of the Act.

Here, too, we need parallel structure, not just two vaguely related ideas. It would also help to keep “absolutely immunity” as the subject of both phrases rather than sliding between “international law” and “absolute immunity”:

Not only does granting absolute immunity here not conflict with the [International Organizations Immunity Act], but it serves the purpose of the Act.

To keep the rhythm of both phrases similar, I’ve followed DSK’s lawyers’ lead and resisted my urge to change “purpose of the Act” to “the Act’s purpose.”

Even so, to avoid the double negative “not only . . . not,” try breaking the sentence in two:

Granting absolutely immunity does not conflict with the Act. Indeed, it serves the purpose of the Act.

I’ll leave it to you to predict whether absolute immunity will shelter DSK from his confessed “moral failing” in the Sofitel suite that day. In the meantime, happy cutting—and enjoy your new-found speed!

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