Stop Boring Us Readers. Use Plain Legal Language
This applies to all languages.
It sounds so simple: if you want that people read your texts – be it a judge, an existing client, a job applicant, a potential new client – use a language that is easy to understand.
But when I look around me, I find documents that are written in horrible language, especially from people that work in the legal sector or from areas that come with an important legal aspect, such as Human Resources (HR).
In law school, we had to learn “legalese English” to understand the many legal documents written in it. But in practice, I actually spend a lot of my time and effort to actively not use legalese. Instead, I use plain English. Or plain German. Or plain French.
I firmly believe in the power of plain English. It is robust and direct – the opposite of the gaudy, pretentious language that many use, especially lawyers. You achieve plain English when you use the simplest, most straightforward way of expressing an idea.
Such a language is also easy to translate. That aspect even becomes more important if you expect your text to be later translated into another language.
Why is plain English important in the area of law?
• Writing isn’t easy. Most people don’t write very well, even if they think they do. Many professionals such as doctors and professors aren’t accomplished writers. Why should it be any different for lawyers?
• Law is complex, and filled with jargon. To explain difficult concepts, the legal field tends to use bloated expressions instead of everyday words. As a result, the average legal writer ends up being wordy, artificial, often ungrammatical, and quite unreadable.
• It’s hard to break industry tradition. Each generation of lawyers trains the next to follow its ingrained habits. What do law students study? Reams of tedious, too-formal, clunky prose. It’s no surprise that lawyers think their pompous writing is normal.
Principles of readable legal writing
As a legal writer in the area of Intellectual Property (IP), I am facing patent applications, reports to clients, demand letters, opinion letters, research memos, judicial opinions and contracts, to name a few. Regardless of the format, certain principles apply for me:
1. Frame my thoughts. I focus and remove everything that doesn’t quickly communicate my ideas. my biggest challenge is to figure out exactly what my main points are – and then stating them coherently, with adequate reasoning and support. To do this, planning is essential.
A useful 4-part writing process comprises: i) brainstorm for ideas, ii) prepare an outline that organises information sensibly, iii) write a quick draft based on the outline, and iv) edit repeatedly for clarity and conciseness.
2. Phrase my sentences. Anyone can write a long and bloated document. Often, length and complexity is a disguise for poor thinking. To combat verbosity, I do
• omit needless words – this forces me to think about what is truly necessary
• consider sentence length – I keep it to an average of about 20 words
• keep the subject, the verb, and the object together, near the beginning of the sentence – this improves clarity for the reader
• prefer the active voice over the passive – it has fewer words, and is more powerful and immediate
• end sentences emphatically – maintain the reader’s attention; if possible, I don’t let a sentence fizzle out with boring information
3. Choose my words. In general, simplicity rules. I do
• avoid unnecessary jargon – while there are useful legal terms, using unnecessary jargon makes you sound silly to outsiders. See the example below.
• use strong, precise verbs – minimise “to be” verb forms like “is, are, was, and were”; too many of these together will make sentences sluggish
• simplify bloated phrases. I replace “until such time as” with “until”; “notwithstanding the fact that” with “although”. Write that someone has “violated the law”, not that someone was “in violation of the law”.
• avoid redundancy – law is full of doublets like “the last will and testament of”
• refer to people and companies by name – don’t use corresponding terms ending in -or and -ee like “licensor/licensee”
• write as if i am speaking – i try to talk directly to the reader, with a relaxed and natural sounding tone. A useful test for me is: can I read my writing out loud and have it make sense to a listener?
A bad (but typical) example
Here is a common disclaimer found in emails. Can you understand it?
The foregoing message may, in whole or in part (including but not limited to any and all attachments hereto), contain confidential and/or privileged information. If you are not the addressee denominated in the foregoing recipient box designated for the purpose of such denomination, or you are not a person or persons authorized to receive this message for said recipient, then you must not use, copy, disclose, or take any action on said message or on any information hereinabove and/or hereinbelow. If said message has been received by you in error, please advise the sender forthwith by reply email and delete said message. Unintended transmission of said message shall not constitute a knowing waiver of attorney-client privilege or of any other privilege to which the unintentional sender may be entitled at law or in equity.
This is how I prefer the email disclaimer to be:
This message, together with any attachments, may contain privileged or confidential information. Unless you are the intended recipient, you cannot use it. If you have received this email by mistake, please reply to let us know and then permanently delete it. We do not waive any privilege with misdelivered email.
I have taken this example from Bryan A. Garner, “Legal Writing in Plain English, Second Edition: A Text with Exercises.” And I strongly recommend reading the entire book and working through the exercises mentioned there. A similar book is “The Lawyer’s Guide to Writing Well” by Tom Goldstein and Jethro K. Lieberman.
I also recommend the following books (most of them are available for free download from the Internet):
“Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White
“On Writing Well” By William Zinsser
“Writing to Learn” by William Zinsser
“Write Everything Right” by Denny Hatch
“On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King
“The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler and Michele Montez
“Becoming a Writer” by Dorothea Brande
And there are many online courses for improving your writing on LinkedIn Learning, here
I can give you free access to any course on LinkedIn Learning if you send me a short message on LinkedIn.
In addition to that or alternatively I recommend publishing little articles on LinkedIn. You can write about a legal problem that you have encountered in your practice, or just write a book review. Such articles will also help young lawyers when they are looking for a new job.
Experiment with Type, Style, and Tone
I strongly recommend experimenting with the type, style, and tone of your texts.
Not many people are able to write one and the same text for sales, in a creative way, or soberly technical, with all three texts not being boring.
My own emphasis is on technical writing. It requires in-depth knowledge of a subject, or at least a willingness to put in the research. Technical writing covers specialist topic areas such as engineering, health, marketing, finance, and politics.
Technical writers are a rare and valuable species: a hybrid of techie and writer, and they can explain clearly and simply to the end-user.
Excellent grammar is a must, as is an ability to relay facts and reference these appropriately. Further criteria are that I stick to the main points of my piece, as well as ensure that my content is comprehensive and still widely understood. .
I found the following blog article very useful because it explains the differences in an article’s tone with examples:
Call to Action: Start writing book reviews
Take out your favorite book now and start to write a review on your LinkedIn account.
In the following is a structure for a book review, recommended by my long-time mentor Dr. Gary North:
Here are the steps in writing a good book review.
1. Decide on who you are writing it for: age, background, motivartion.
2. Read with the review in mind.
3. Read fast the first time through.
4. Mark sections with a pencil
5. Read it again to spot unique points
6. Look for important points for the review’s reader.
7. After you are finished, jot down a few salient points.
Ask these questions:
8. How is this book different from others in the field?
9. How is this book the same as most in the field?
10. How can someone implement this information productively?
11. Are there any significant errors?
12. Are there any significant gaps?
13. How does this book fit into the author’s overall work?
14. What are the three most important ideas to remember? (Evernote)
15. What are three key facts to remember? (Evernote)
The idea of the review is to let a reader know if it’s worth reading the book. You save him time in making this decision. You make his life easier.
Start writing your first online article now.