Plain English legal writing delivers legal information a reader can read, understand and act upon in one reading. Dry definition, right? I’ll let you get a drink.
Some consider plain English writing as dumbing down writing. It requires great skill to say something clearly and simply rather than confusing and laboriously. Give it a go and you’ll see what I mean. It is a great way for you and your teams to start thinking about how lawyers can improve their service delivery. It’s bloody hard to write things plainly and concisely. But it’s the one way for transformation you can start with immediately.
How are you going on your plain English journey? Is it for you?
Why plain English legal writing is ideal for your lawyers and customers
- It makes sense. Think about it, can you think of any valid reasons why legal documents are so complicated it takes an eloquence of lawyers to argue about what they mean?
- Plain English legal writing empowers your customer because when they understand their options, rights and opportunities they can make informed decisions without relying on lawyers to show them the way
- In the same way, the user can take action to avoid mistakes, manage risk and increase their compliance
- Plain English is the friend of commerce because we spend less time splitting hairs arguing about legal words and clauses and we can close contracts quickly
- It saves time and money for the user and frees lawyers to explore new ways of delivering legal services by working smarter not harder (the working smarter, not harder is the real beauty of legal design thinking in action)
- PS: one of the most beautiful outcomes of plain English legal communication has been lawyers stepping away from big law and building a legal business around their plain English brand. When clients find a lawyer they understand, the word spreads like wildfire.
Sound interesting to you? Here’s how you and your team can begin making positive changes with plain English legal documents
Forget you are lawyers for a moment and think about your communications
- Who is your reader, your user?
- What is the key message you need to deliver?
- What do you need your user to do?
- Is your language simple, direct, user-friendly (and can be understood after one reading)?
- Have you erased all non-essential words and legal jargon?
- Do you start with the most important information (most important for the user that is)?
- Is it conversational? Read it out loud.
Define who you’re writing to and write to those users
- Who will be reading your words, and what will they be doing with them? Your end-users are unlikely to be lawyers, and even if they are, they will have clients. They are the clients who need to make decisions based on your advice.
- We lawyers like to cover every single base in our legal advice (just in case). But do our customers need all the information? We need to think about who will be reading our stuff and what they need to act on it. It usually means refining our messages to necessary information.
- This is scary for lawyers because documents are tailored specifically to the user, and things will be left out. But it’s ok, your user doesn’t need this information because it isn’t relevant to them.
Present your content with the user front of mind
- Get to the point immediately. Most users do not need or care about the legal stuff, the small print and boilerplate. They want to know the answer, so hit them with it at the very beginning of the document. Add the legal stuff if you want to, but think about the user first and put the legal information in a place relevant to the priority they place upon it.
- Keep your information concise, clear and edit ruthlessly to remove all unnecessary words. Unnecessary words do nothing to help your user understand your message. Delete. (Yes, delete.)
- For the love of fresh doughnuts, please ditch the legalese. Erase any words you could replace with a simpler word.
- Make it clear what action the end-user takes next. The environment and the situation the user is in may feel unnatural and intimidating, and the next steps should be clear. Empathy should underpin all your communication and design thinking.
- I know this is tough stuff, and you’ll get way out of your comfort zone plenty of times, and I promise it will be worth it.
Use long-form headings to help the user to find relevant information more quickly
- If the document is a long one, use long-form headings so the user can scan and read the issues in order of priority to the user.
- Although we want long-form headings, we want simple language, short sentences and bullet points. See how the bullet points here make it easier to digest this article.
Think about the tone of voice and aim for conversational
- Just as your words should be concise and easy to understand, a conversational style makes it easier to understand. Are you asking questions, using “you” and “we” and providing options? Do the words flow as though you are answering questions?
- Imagine your document as if you are explaining an issue over coffee with a friend.
Create plain language summaries to help the users understand more fully
- Do you have a document management system in place? You can’t change the documents? It doesn’t mean the end of your plain English journey. You can create plain English summaries your end-user can use to understand and act upon.
- In many cases, protocol demands heavy, legal, cumbersome communication but if the first page is a light, easy to understand summary of the situation written in plain English, your end-user will be delighted.
My favourite part: involve your users in the process
- Legal design thinking is about identifying problems, brainstorming ideas for solutions, empathy and collecting data from users, trying new solutions, learning from them and creating better ones.
- So involve your user in the process, take time to understand their struggles, ask about what kind of communication works for them, ask if your solution was helpful for them?
- Test the output and keep adjusting for each document until you find your groove.
My friend, there is no law requiring you to hold on to the old ways of doing things. You have permission (and an obligation) to improve access to the law. Plain English writing is a very easy place to start.
Take a document you use and read it. Read it and think about what you could change about it so it could be understood with one reading. It’s a challenge and it isn’t as simple as you think.
Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest. -Leo Babauta
This is great brain food for you, your lawyers and your customers.
Have fun and stay curious.
I’d be delighted to hear about your plain English outcomes.
References: Garner, Bryan. Legal Writing in Plain English. 2014. Suominen, Riitta. Virkakielen käytettävyys. 2019