The benefits of writing legal documents in plain English

The benefits of writing legal documents in plain English

“We lawyers say everything two or three times so that nobody but we of the craft can untwist the diction, and find out what it means…”

– Thomas Jefferson, 1817

Although the modern plain legal English movement has been around since the 1970s, it is only in recent years that it has started to gain widespread appeal. Plain language is now mandatory in some legal contexts.

Even so, many legal firms and professionals are sceptical about just how beneficial using plain legal English can be, from winning the loyalty of clients, to securing deals, and saving a huge amount of time and money. If you’re unsure of the benefits of plain legal English, or want to convince someone else of the benefits, this guide is a good place to start. 

Access to justice

Most agree that access to a court is a human right, as is the right to a fair hearing, and to equality before the law. But how can a person be equal before the law if they don’t understand how the law applies to them? Using plain legal English is an important part of allowing everyone proper access to the legal system.

In Lord Woolf’s seminal report commissioned in 1994, he outlined several principles to ensure access to the civil justice system. Among other things, his report concluded that the law had to be just, fair, and “understandable to those who use it”.

There has been a long battle to make the law understandable to the public, and the use of plain legal English is at the heart of that. But legal access isn’t just a right for claimants, it can also help lawyers comply with international law, and even prevent them undermining their own cases through poor writing.

Compliance with international law

In recent decades, countries like the USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Republic of Ireland have embraced plain legal English, and it’s a requirement in many areas of law, especially consumer legislation. So much so that Penn State Law keeps a summary of cases in which judges have admonished lawyers for “poorly drafted pleadings and bad writing”. 

One court dismissed a plaintiff’s claim because it was “poorly written and lacked organisation”. They noted with some derision “the court’s responsibilities do not include cryptography, especially when the plaintiff is represented by counsel.”

By using plain legal English, you can avoid taking hits to your reputation, and ensure you don’t derail your cases or negotiations with opaque drafting.

Saving time and money

One of the more obvious benefits of using plain legal English is that lawyers save a lot of time lost to phone calls, emails, and meetings that could have been avoided if they’d drafted clear legal documents in the first place. When GE Aviation began using plain English in their contracts, they found it took 60% less time to conclude negotiations. 

In 2008, Cleveland Clinic managed to recover an extra $1 million a month by issuing simplified billings statements. Sabre Travel managed to reduce help desk calls by 70% by writing plain English guidance for its information systems, saving the company over $2.4 million. Joseph Kimble discusses these cases and others in his acclaimed book Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government, and Law.

It can be hard to adopt new practices, such as translating dense legalese into fresh, readable copy, especially if it doesn’t have some direct effect on your “bottom line”. Well, here is a solid financial and time-saving reason to use plain legal English in your documents.

Improved communication

As a lawyer, it’s in your own interest to communicate effectively with your clients. If they don’t understand what you’re presenting them with, how can they make appropriate decisions? This might lead to a negative outcome for them, which will put them off your services, or it might even backfire on you, especially if they lose a case, or fail to secure a deal because they weren’t properly informed.

Legal writing is notorious for presenting the reader with unbroken walls of text, often in the form of single-sentence paragraphs that dump all the information on a reader at once, leaving them bewildered. You can avoid this by breaking up text into easily digestible sections, which each cover a single idea. Using elements like bullet points and numbered sections can also help walk readers through each aspect of a legal document. 

This approach can be particularly useful if a document is being renegotiated, or some sections simply aren’t relevant. You can then make individual changes and deletions without the worry that important clauses might get removed in the process. You’d be surprised how many legal documents don’t even include such basics of clear writing. 

Happy clients

It’s possible to win an argument, but lose a person. Lawyers often focus on winning a case or closing a deal for their clients, but it’s also important that they focus on winning their trust and securing their satisfaction. People intuitively trust professionals who communicate directly and don’t waste time (especially when being charged by the hour!).

This will win you more clients as recommendations increase, and will help you retain existing clients for longer. You can achieve all this just by writing clearly.

Everyone has a right to access legal information they can easily understand. This helps them see how the law applies to them, and how a lawyer can help them. And while good for access to justice and legal advice, it also makes it more likely clients will want to work with you. It gives them a strong impression of your practice and encourages them to come back to you in future. 

When translating legal documents into English, you have a chance to communicate effectively. Working with a specialist in plain legal English translation can help you achieve this. Alternatively, a plain English specialist can help spruce up your existing English legal documents. If you want to win the loyalty of your English-speaking clients, I’d be more than happy to work with you.