Plain English legal writing can revolutionize your law business. Here’s why

It’s time to shake things up. Time for you to start communicating with your clients on their level, in a way they understand. Using plain English in your communication and legal writing is the key.

How plain English legal writing can transform your business?

You’re a smart cookie. Your communication style can be your brand, setting you apart from stuffy, big law up the road. You can be the lawyer everyone wants to use. I know you can.

Using plain English in your law business can be your point of difference. No more baffled customers, you’ll be a refreshing change. Your customers will be loyal advocates and referrals will come. And all you need to do is ditch the legalese, the jargon and start writing for your audience, in a way they understand.

How great does this sound? “Oh, you must see, Laura. She’s incredible. She explains things in a way I understand. If I’m still unsure, she will explain it again until I am. She is like a regular person, and you’ll love her. She can help.”

You see, most people aren’t lawyers. They don’t have the knowledge or the vocabulary of a trained lawyer. Plonk a letter in front of them, full of legal words and big scary sentences they don’t understand, it’s scary. Imagine writing a letter of advice to your local baker and the look on their face because they understand what you have told them. It’s what all lawyers should do. Sadly, it’s not the case. A lot of people don’t use lawyers because they are intimidating.

You, my friend, you have the opportunity to use this failing to your benefit and serve the people at the same time. It is possible. And it is the future of law.

Think about the baker? If she baked inedible bread, she’d soon go out of business. If lawyers can’t find a way to please their clients (trust me, at the moment they aren’t), they will go the way of the baker, too.

Revelation.

We all know lawyers are still in the dark ages when it comes to communication. BUT you can say the same things using simple, concise and easy to understand words. Plus, you’ll use a third of the paper. Oh, the trees. They will be so grateful.

You are in the box seat right now. If you are thinking about escaping big law or leapt already, now is your time to move, shake and shine.

Make your communication style your signature. I know you can do it.

Why should lawyers change how they write?

Effective and engaging communication is vital for all successful businesses. For some reason, the legal system is exempt from this rule. Lawyers enjoy the luxury of being necessary. It allows them to stay bogged in tradition.

But their aloof style does cost the industry and the people they are here to serve. It gives us all a bad rep.

Let me give you an example. I am involved in some incredible partnerships. The business relationship develops, the ideas present themselves, and long-lasting business plans emerge. We usually conjure the deal with wine, dinner or coffee. Always without lawyers because entrepreneurs are creatives. Lawyers get in the way, sometimes harm relationships and slow things down. We know we need to do the legal stuff. So, our brief to the lawyers is to get the documentation done quickly. Because as entrepreneurs we want to get on with the things we do best.

But it does not have to be like this. You can be the lawyer entrepreneurs want at the table. Why? Because you are solution-focused, concise and produce legal documentation everyone can understand. Your copy can build trust, build your brand, and help people reach their goals. A seat at the table means a change in how you write.

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How to write legal documents in plain English

1 Ditch the legalese

Language has been your most important tool as a lawyer. It is how you communicate. But you can learn a new legal language and serve people better than other lawyers. This language is user focused and written for the person who will read it.

User-friendly language is the sum of many things. It means writing so your reader can understand it. No more herein’s or aforementioned’s.

Before you start, decide who will read or use your legal content and why? What is the essential message you want to convey and what do you want the person to do?

  • Be concise. Deliver your information comprehensively and precisely. Every word should add value to your message. Delete the fluff. Direct and simple is always best. Never use the first draft. Edit ruthlessly. Can you take an 88-word paragraph and say the same thing in 20 words? Depending on your reader, you may decide to make extra information available with an external link. If your document is 1,500 words, challenge yourself to reduce it to 1,000, while conveying the same message. Copywriters and editors, do it all the time. 
  • Always look for the simplest word. This might mean using synonyms. You can find synonym finders online. Always use the shortest and least complex synonym. Of course, you will need to use specific legal terms. Include a brief description of what it means. User-friendly language means simple language, but you can enrich the content with explanations. Please, no legal jargon or legalese. It is fluff.
  • When you are structuring your language, remember sentence lengths and structure. Reading a long sentence, bulging with information is difficult. Short sentences and direct word order are preferable. Aim for sentences containing no more than 15 words. 

Using user-friendly language requires you to unlearn the things you have learned. It takes courage because it is challenging. But you’ve got it in you. I can see it.

2 Organize your writing

Have you noticed that lawyers like to think in lists and chronological order? Your order of priority is very different from your user.

It is the same in traditional legal writing. Lawyers tend to focus on content users aren’t interested in. Get straight to the point.

Place the important information at the beginning of the text.

Headings and a clear table of contents are useful and help the user to find her relevant information. Instead of short single-word headings, use long-tail headings detail the sections. This makes it easier for the user to navigate the structure and find the content of interest to her faster.

3 Use a personal and conversational style

As lawyers, we learn to write passively, remove personality and emotion from our language. Being factual, serious, and devoid of any human feeling have been the guarantee of reliability and authority for centuries. Boring.

Sound like you?

The old-fashioned style does not work. It does not reach the user or help the user. I am baffled how it has been able to hold its ground.

Industry and business have adapted their communications in their quest for consumer satisfaction. They continue to do it every day. As people we are bombarded with messages constantly. All designed for us to take some kind of action. Over the last 2 decades alone, technology has utterly changed how we communicate and message.

Yet lawyers remain the same. The legal industry must do the same if consumer satisfaction is a priority. (Can you hear the voice saying “I can be the change and build a thriving legal business around it.”) I can.

Let go of the boring. Feel free to use a personal style. Your customers and audience are all different. It’s exciting because your legal content can boldly reflect their style. It makes people interested and committed.

Use a conversational style in your writing. Add words like “you” and “we” and if you are a risk-taker, “us”. It is ok to use “it’s” and apostrophes. Write like you explaining something over a coffee. Conversational writing helps the message feel more personal.

Dare to try different styles, and you will see what works. Not everything works, and over time, you will find the style suiting you and your customers.

Re-designing legal writing is transformative

Who would have thought a lawyer’s work could be re-designed into a creative profession? This is not the place where everything stays the same. Here is where you can use all your different skills.

There is no need to hang on to existing patterns and ways of doing things because it has always been. You have permission and an obligation to develop new ways to serve customers.

You can get started with very little – remember, something simple first. When you open a blank Word document, think about these tips. Find a long letter of advice you have written. See if you can make it more user-friendly and solution focused.

Remember:

  • who is your audience?
  • what is the key message you need to deliver?
  • what do you need them to do?
  • write with simple, direct, user-friendly language
  • read it out loud to see if it sounds conversational
  • edit any non-essential words

Then

  • show it to a non-lawyer friend and see if they understand. 

Have fun. You are on your way to finding your niche: the relatable lawyer. The world needs people like you. And you can build a thriving practice around it.

 Let me know about your experiences, comment here below or send me a dm, I’m always happy to hear from you!

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Image of Hannele Korhonen Legal Designer

Who’s writing?

Hi, I’m Hannele. I am an ex-corporate lawyer, legal designer, pioneer in legal tech, serial entrepreneur and blogger.  I am the founder and teacher in Lawyer’s Design School.

I’m here to teach you new skills and mindset of legal design to thrive in the future of law.

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