A LinkedIn group has been debating the use of plain English by lawyers. One participant reports on some investigations of her own

I've been taking part in an interesting and useful debate on the LinkedIn Group UK Solicitors – Legal/Law Networking Group, on the use of plain English by lawyers. It's a relevant subject for all Scots solicitors, both private practice and in-house.

The essential point for debate was whether lawyers are embracing plain English or are we still all baffling our clients/customers with incomprehensible jargon, acronyms and legal concepts. It also asked whether new players in the legal market will make more of an effort to use language that non-lawyers can understand, giving them a market advantage.

The debate

The debate was called “Lawyers are making life more difficult for themselves by using language their clients don’t understand”. It is clear from the comments made that plain English is not yet universally used by UK solicitors. Here are a couple of key quotes:

  • “All the knowledge and expertise in the world is useless if you can't pass it on to your client in a way they understand!”
  • “As a customer... please, please, please speak plain English. It really frustrates me and makes me feel inadequate when I have to decipher a document as if it were in a foreign language.”

My own view was that new players to the legal market are likely to try and distinguish themselves by using plain English, and so existing players need to do the same. I also hope that law schools are teaching these skills. For me it’s not just about solicitor-client communications. I see no reason why we couldn't also apply plain English to communications between solicitors, to contracts and to terms and conditions.

More evidence

I looked at some legal websites in Scotland to see how clear they were. I found some good examples, particularly some law firms who are making clarity their aim. I also found plenty of bad examples, for example:

  • acronyms like "IP";
  • "conveyancing";
  • "multi jurisdictional"; and
  • "cross disciplinary teams".

If you were a client/ customer would you understand these terms? Despite these examples I don't think websites are where the main plain English issue in the legal world lies. Websites tend to be relatively clear because they’re sales pieces, written by the marketing people not the lawyers. I think far bigger crimes against plain English are being committed every day in our letters, emails, contracts, and terms and conditions.

I asked the Plain English Campaign for their views about whether solicitors used plain English. They responded almost immediately, sending me an example of a complaint: a planning notice letter packed with legalese such as references to section numbers from legislation. It was a letter from a local council in England to all the householders in the area. As a lawyer I didn't understand it, so it's not surprising that one of the householders (herself a legal secretary) was asking the Campaign for a translation.

This wasn't a one-off in the UK. The Campaign said it received complaints like this “all the time”, and: “How many people, I wonder, have lost out because they didn't understand the legalese, small print, and Latin used in all manner of consumer contracts. All of which could have been avoided if solicitors had the will to communicate with the public in plain English”.

A challenge for you

Do you have the will? Are your communications plain English? What about the rest of your firm or organisation? If not, isn’t now the time to change?

How to change

The Plain English Campaign has this advice: "We realise that solicitors have to use certain words and phrases because the meaning of those terms has become so carefully defined. But these words and phrases never make up more than 10% of any legal document. Everything else in a legal document can be explained in common words which everyone can understand. Technical words can be explained in a glossary."

To help you more, here are my five top tips, distilled from various training courses and my own experience as an in-house lawyer and a client – whether you are in private practice or in-house, these could help your communications.

1. Radically simplify your language

Replace legal jargon like “disbursements” – or even worse, “emoluments” – with a simple plain English equivalent that your reader will understand, e.g. "costs". Avoid long words. Consign the Latin phrases to history. Always put yourself in the client/customer’s shoes – think: would I understand 100% of this if I was them? If in doubt, think about family and friends who are not lawyers – what would they really understand?

2. Short is sweet

Keep your sentences short. Keep your documents short too, by editing them down to what the end user really needs. Cut, cut and then cut some more. Use a simple, easy to use structure with clear headings. It takes a bit of time but is well worth the effort.

3. Put your key messages right at the start

Not buried at the end of your communication. Same goes for the actions. What is it you want your client or customer to do after reading your communication? Do not assume that it’s obvious. Make it really clear up front.

4. Training is your friend

Communications skills training can really help. Lots of companies can provide this, but I particularly like Clarity (www.claritywritingexperts.com), who did some talks I attended recently.

5. Keep evolving your communications

Ask your clients and customers for feedback by asking: did you understand it? Was it easy to use? Then make changes on the back of that feedback.

Make it official

If you are Plain English and proud, you could even apply for a Plain English Campaign Crystal Mark for your website or documents like terms and conditions. The Campaign charges around £450-£1,700 (including initial review) for the first year and £250-£750 for each following year, depending on the size of the website. Documents can be reviewed and certified for around £65 per page – probably another incentive to keep your documents short!


The Author
Sara Scott is vice chair of the In-house Lawyers Group  
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