Three cheers for plain language


Commenting on An Orwellian approach to legal writing, 3 readers share insights and experiences recommending plain language. Here’s a sampling of what they have to say:

“My crime briefs ‘read like a thriller,’” says Bapoo M. Malcolm, Advocate, Bombay High Court, India.

“Practice has shown that people appreciate simplicity & clarity in comprehension compared to more technical writing (jargons & all),” observes Janice Isu, Acting Principal Legal Officer, Office of the State Solicitor, Dept. of Justice & Attorney General, Papua New Guinea.

“A company can’t hide behind fine print written in legalese. Judges rule for the average person,” declares Paul Eveleigh, a copywriter from Melbourne, Australia.

There’s more.

Bapoo writes:

Read my first brief when I was about to lose my home. Found it boring and confusing. As were our replies. Asked my advocate if I could respond. Used plain language from that day. And made it plainer by the day. 22 years later, won back my home and added my law degree to that after another 2 years. And am still writing plain language. My wife, also a lawyer, says my crime briefs “read like a thriller”.

I rest my case.

Imagine that, a legal brief reading “like a thriller.” I bet the High Court judges look forward to seeing Mr. Malcolm’s name on a brief cover. I would if I were a judge.

Bapoo hones in on a key element of effective legal advocacy. Use plain language to tell your client’s story in a way both interesting and compelling.

The facts and circumstances underlying the case are real human drama, lived by your client and played out in the courtroom. The judge deciding the case wants to get it Right, to do Justice. A well-written brief does not clinically recite facts and follow with dry, boring, monotonous legal argument. It tells your client’s story in plain and simple terms. It engages the judge on a human level. Plain language uses everyday words and a few well-chosen figures of speech to weave a narrative that paints a picture. It invites, or better still, forces the judge to see the case through the client’s eyes. Tired, mind-numbing lawyer-speak cannot do this. No, only plain language, gripping and vibrant, can propel the judge in to your client’s world.  Just as assuredly, stilted language keeps the judge at a distance, or worse, drives her away.

Janice writes:

I believe that writing in plain language exposes lawyers from their comfort zones. From personal experience, I often hesitate to write in plain language for fear that I might lose the legal meaning of something altogether if I don’t use jargon. However, practice has shown that people appreciate simplicity & clarity in comprehension compared to more technical writing (jargons & all). And yes, writing in plain language is time consuming and harder than writing that includes jargon and fancy words. Keep it plain y’all!

Janice puts her finger on the source of the lawyer’s discomfort with plain language, namely, the belief that effective legal argument requires lawyer-speak. But rest easy, judges not only welcome, but prefer plain language in legal briefs. If you doubt this, click here  and here.

Paul cuts to the chase:

A company can’t hide behind fine print written in legalese. Judges rule for the average person. Judges rule you don’t need to be a forensic accountant or lawyer to grasp a legal document. Warranties, guarantees, terms and conditions, and other fine print need to be in plain English. Plain words most people can read and understand.

I couldn’t agree more.

1 Comment

Filed under Best Practices, Court Decisions, Customer Experience, Service Contract, Statutes & Regulations, Warranty

One response to “Three cheers for plain language

  1. Henry Lopez

    Great point. I’d add that as legal writing benefits from plain language so too do presentations. Below are three points to consider when preparing a presentation before a judge/jury:

    1. It is well documented that people generally read faster than they hear (approximately 150 wpm spoken vs. 275 wpm reading). Thus, it is reasonable to expect that a judge or jury will finish reading your slide before you’ve had an opportunity to finish reading it to them. This means you run a risk of having an unattentive audience for the majority of your presentation. You can avoid this by having streamlined, effective issue points that highlight your discussion rather than bullet points you read/repeat to them.

    2. Avoid the verbal redundancy effect. Using concise plain language is more persuasive than verbose legal jargon. If highly technical legal matters are necessary for your presentation use simple plain language points in your presentation and accentuate with verbose legal jargon to add context. Again, the point is not to overwhelm the audience with audio and visual stimuli but rather present highly technical data in a plain, simple to understand manner.

    3. Lastly, as a marriage of the plain language in legal writing movement and simplicity in presenting data I attach the following TED talk. Please note not only the content of Mr. Siegel’s presentation, but also the efficiency in his presentation.


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