Why Does Redrafting Traditional Contract Language Result in So Much Change?

In this post I say why it’s important to be systematic about applying effective contract-drafting usages systematically. But in my consulting work, that’s only a small part of the story. If, as is usually the case, I’m charged with producing a new version of a template that uses traditional contract language, my work consists of way more than fine-tuning the wording.

Even if you assume that the substance—the what-to-say part—remains essentially unchanged, the how-to-say-it part still offers plenty of scope for drastic change.

For one thing, when it comes to the boilerplate (Notices, Indemnification, Governing Law, and so on), it makes sense for me to use my own versions, refined over the years, instead of retooling whatever happens to be in the template I’m working on.

But beyond that, I can usually expect to apply a cascading series of changes that renders my version entirely distinct from what I started with. I can expect to do, among other things, the following:

  • apply a different enumeration scheme
  • reorder provisions so they tell the story of the transaction more effectively
  • revise the categories of contract language so that, for example, a sentence that started as an obligation becomes a condition
  • overhaul how defined terms are handled, so a cumbersome definition section at the beginning of the body of the contract is slimmed down, with the remaining definitions either in a definition section toward the back or placed “on site”
  • replace many abstract nouns with verbs or adjectives
  • eliminate redundancy

Some of those changes are significant when considered on their own. Others are significant when considered cumulatively. Either way, the client gets back something very different. For an example of what this sort of change looks like, see the appendix to the fourth edition of MSCD. It consists of two versions of a contract given me by one of the national U.S. law firms. The first version is the original, annotated with over 200 footnotes explaining its shortcomings. The second version is my redraft, which is significantly shorter, much clearer, and very different, although it says essentially the same thing as the original.

I now warn clients about change up-front, because some clients aren’t equipped to handle change.

I’m unable to offer a halfway version of change. I don’t just “tweak” templates, because that would require me to decide what level of dysfunction is acceptable. I wouldn’t know how to make those sorts of calls.

Recently a client made it clear that given their deadlines, drastic change wasn’t an option. So instead of revising their template, I produced an extensively annotated version, leaving them to make whatever changes they felt appropriate. The best that could be said for that approach is that it’s better than nothing.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.