How to implement a plain-language policy

How to implement a plain-language policy

Once you’ve decided that using plain language in your law firm is the right approach (and I hope I’ve convinced you it is), there’s still the question of exactly how you do this.

It’s hard to know where to start, especially if legalese is deeply ingrained in your organisation. That’s why you need a systematic approach to implementing plain legal language. It can help turn the abstract idea that your legal writing needs reimagining into practical action with measurable success metrics.

This article shows you how to introduce plain-language principles to your legal practice in a manageable and consistent way likely to yield results far sooner than a less structured approach.

Get your colleagues on board

Before you can implement a plain-language policy, you need to have the right people on board. Start by talking to the people most likely to support your aims, then start up an inclusive conversation with your firm’s members who are not yet sold on the idea. My article “What is legalese?” can help break down misconceptions around plain language and what it means to “write like a lawyer”.

It’s also a good idea to have some case studies to hand. Start with my handy guide featuring examples of organisations and law firms transformed by adopting plain legal language.

Audit your legal documents

If you want to implement plain legal writing but don’t know where to start, review your existing legal documents to see where there is room for improvement.

Get as many people as possible to read the same documents and give feedback on their clarity and conciseness, and whether they think the average reader could understand them.

Come up with a plan of action

Implementing a plain-language policy can be time-consuming. Depending on your firm’s size, available resources, and priorities, it’s worth having a plan of what you want to achieve.

When Citibank experienced PR problems in the 1970s, it introduced plain language by focusing on the document most in need of change: an infamous 3000-word promissory note that even their staff didn’t fully understand.

What is your firm’s equivalent of Citibank’s promissory note? Identify the one document most in need of change and start there.

Set yourself goals

When implementing new processes or systems, you need to define what you hope to achieve.

Do you want to save time spent negotiating contracts? Do you want to win repeat customers by being more transparent? Do you want more referrals by communicating more clearly?

Whatever your goals, write them down. That way you can know when you’ve achieved them.

Seek outside advice

As a law firm, you have a lot going on, and even the best will in the world won’t make you an expert in plain language overnight. When Australian law firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques implemented a plain legal language policy in the mid-1980s, they were happy with their initial efforts. Still, when they brought in a plain-language expert, he “pulled them to pieces”, ultimately saving them much time in the end.

Understand your audience

The most important insight that Mallesons Stephen Jaques learnt was to consider their audience when writing documents. This approach makes sense if you think about it. You don’t talk to an elderly relative like a close friend or speak to a partner like a judge. So why would you treat all your clients the same?

Whom you are writing for is key to how you communicate with them effectively; plain language isn’t just about the legal documents you draft, but about the emails you send, and how you talk to people in face-to-face consultations.

Create a plain-language repository

Legal writing is often inaccessible because lawyers base their drafting on texts they studied at law school, and whatever documents circulate in their firm. Examples mindlessly passed down from one generation of lawyers to the next: often poorly drafted, badly structured, and full of inconsistencies.

To implement plain language, you need to change the default mindset you enter when drafting legal documents. A great way to do this is to read plain-language legal documents and orientate yourself in this new approach to writing, which can feel alien at first. Gather examples together in a shared folder for all your team to access.

You can find plenty of examples of these legal documents online, like this PDF of Citibank’s plain-language promissory note (this has changed over the years but is a good reference point).

Test, test, test!

Ultimately, you won’t know how effective your new plain-language documents are until you start using them. Once you’ve rewritten a contract in plain language, approach the correct person at your client for feedback. If you’ve drafted a new employment contract, for instance, ask the HR manager whether it facilitates their recruitment process.

Consider their comments. And if your new documents aren’t hitting all the right notes, go back to the drawing board. The more engaged your client feels in the process, the better the outcome will be.

The secret to writing plain-language documents is to understand the experience of the person using them. A tenancy agreement for a student room looks nothing like a commercial lease. A car rental agreement for tourists differs from a lease buyback agreement for a company needing to turn depreciating equipment into cash. Each document’s typical user will have different experiences, skills, and expectations.

I hope this short guide to implementing plain legal language in your firm has given you a feel for what you’ll need to do. If you want assistance in creating plain-language documents, please get in touch. Let’s identify your firm’s document most in need of change and get the ball rolling.