10 July 2024

Words that work.

Language is everything. It says who you are and what you’re like to deal with. Using clear, succinct language also fosters trust. Think of it as making direct eye contact through the written word.

Lawyers are not known for succinct comms. Using long-winded, over-complicated terminology creates a barrier between Legal and the client. Lawyers often have a reputation for:

  • Being long-winded: writing 200 words when 50 would cover it
  • Making assumptions: assuming the reader is familiar with legal concepts
  • Overcomplicating things: failing to understand that the reader just wants easily digestible information with pragmatic options
  • Exaggerating importance: not understanding that legal issues are (often a small) part of a bigger picture

But on the positive side…

… lawyers are often good speakers. So, it’s useful to think about writing the way you’d talk.

Professor Joseph Kimble writes about the importance of ‘plain language’ in his book Lifting the Fog of Legalese. Here’s a combination of his tips and ours on ways to make your language more accessible and engaging:

  • Use more informal language: it builds stronger connections
  • Shorten sentences: try to keep them shorter than 12 words in length and pepper your paragraphs with short, impactful sentences.
  • Avoid jargon: it ruins the flow and can introduce confusion
  • Provide a summary at the beginning of the document
  • Design documents in a way that’s easy to scan, using headings, italics and bullet points
  • Improve the structure of your text by minimising repetitions and cross-references
  • Use active verbs – not passive verbs. For example, write ‘Jennifer read the contract’, not ‘The contract was read by Jennifer’.
  • Use simple language. It’s not about dumbing down; it’s about opening up. ‘Cognisant’ can be ‘familiar’ and ‘utilise’ can be ‘use’. Of course, there are exceptions where expressions have a specific legal meaning but even these can usually be communicated more clearly using layman’s terms and examples.

Kate Sherburn, who we’re chatting to in our upcoming webinar, says:

‘One of my bugbears is legal language. Lawyers don’t use plain English. I want people to understand the contract that they’re reading. There’s no point in having all of this fancy language if no one knows what it means. What’s the risk of using genuine plain language? It actually reduces the risk because people understand their obligations.’

Find out more about the importance of plain English in our Front Foot Forward webinar which will be held on Monday 22 July, 12 – 12:30pm AEST.