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Why lawyers should embrace plain language, and how to do so

By Heidi Turner,

Clear communication is a vital tool for your law firm's success. Potential clients look at your website and marketing materials to decide if they want to work with you. Current clients rely on your communications to determine how they feel about continuing to work with you. Every interaction you have with a client or potential client shapes their opinion of your law firm.

Unfortunately, the majority of law firm communications, including websites and emails, are written at a level that the general population cannot fully understand. This can affect a firm's ability to bring in new clients or keep their current clients happy.

Embracing the principles of plain language can help you differentiate from other attorneys, effectively engage your audience, and grow your client list.

What is plain language?

Plain language refers to wording that is clear and understandable to its intended reader. It encompasses the words used, but also to the length and complexity of sentences, how a document is framed or formatted, and how well organized the thoughts are.

At its core using plain language means your intended reader can understand what you've written without referring to a dictionary or asking someone else to interpret the document. Text written in plain language is free from jargon—or clearly defines that jargon—and uses the most easily comprehended words and phrases to accurately convey its message.

Why is plain language important?

According to a US Department of Education adult literacy survey, only around 20 percent of American adults perform in the two highest levels of literacy. If you're writing only to those people, you're missing out on a large portion of the population, and many potential clients.

The vast majority of the population has limited knowledge of and experience with legal language. This means that they will have difficulty understanding your meaning and taking action on your communications.

Beyond that, people make assumptions about you and your character based on the wording you use. If you tend to use a lot of legalese—or worse, Latin—in your communications, there's a good chance they'll view you as being somewhat pompous and disinterested in helping them.

Myths about plain language

Unfortunately, people have their own idea about what plain language is, referring to it as a "dumbing-down" of writing or ideas. This isn't true. You can still use adult language in your communications, but you need to use language that the average person can understand, not words and phrasing that require a law degree to work through.

A document is only useful if the person who is meant to read it and act on it can understand it. If they can't, they aren't likely to do anything with it. They'll ignore it and dismiss it. They'll find someone else to work with.

When you're writing any client-facing communications, ask yourself this: did I learn that word or phrase in law school? If the answer is yes, take it out of your client communications. They shouldn't have to go to law school to understand you—if they did, they probably wouldn't need you.

How can plain language help my law firm attract clients?

Communication is a two-way street. You develop a website to confirm your reputation or to attract clients (or both). But your website can do neither if the people reading it don't understand it.

Too often legal websites are written only to convey information lawyers think they need to get out—not what their readers actually need to know. When the focus is on the lawyer's needs the language tends to become more highly technical. When the focus is on the client's needs it's easier to write in language they'll grasp.

Clients won't work with you if they can't understand you. And the vast majority of clients out there aren't familiar with legal jargon. They don't know what a summary judgment is or what cum laude means. Prima facie means nothing to them. They care about whether or not you can help them with their legal matter, but that language doesn't really tell them anything useful.

Plain language also helps to differentiate you from your competition. There are countless lawyers out there who offer the same services, have a comparable education, and can list similar successes on their site. When everyone says the same thing using the same legalese, it's hard for clients to tell anyone apart. They don't know who can best represent them.

Finally, plain language makes your value clear. It takes the focus off your vocabulary and puts it squarely on the work you do. It highlights your true expertise, which usually involves solving your clients' legal or business issues.

Clients won't hire you because you have a big vocabulary. They'll hire you they believe you can solve their problems. But you have to show them you can solve their problems.

How would using plain language affect my firm?

If potential clients read your website and don't understand what you've written, they're likely to assume they won't understand you in a meeting, either. They won't feel engaged by your content or see how it's relevant to them and their circumstances.

Your clients feel empowered to make informed decisions when they can understand what they read, and when they know that you care enough to speak to them in their language. When they can clearly comprehend what you've written, they are more likely to continue working with you.

Why am I having difficulty removing legalese?

It's understandable if you have a tough time letting go of your legalese. After all, client-centric communications aren't generally addressed in law school—academic language that shows off knowledge is highly rewarded. So you've already received positive reinforcement for using it.

Typically, people make decisions for their business based on what others are already doing successfully. If you see other law firm websites using the same legalese to market themselves, you're likely to follow suit. This is especially true where there can be legal consequences to inadvertently writing the wrong thing. Saying what everyone else is saying feels safer.

It's also easy when you work in a specialized field to assume that everyone has the same understanding of the language used as you do. Your colleagues understand the same terms and phrases. You write court briefs and read judge's decisions that are filed with legal jargon. And the legal industry is highly covered in the entertainment and news media, so it's easy to assume that the general public has a high level of understanding of your language based solely on exposure.

In that way, the legal industry is similar to the editing industry. Many people have taken English classes during their education. Most of us do some form of writing, whether that's our main career, writing reports for jobs we do, or simply sending emails and texts to our friends.

Just because our society is filled with people using English doesn't mean that the majority of those people know what a subordinate clause is, can use "appositive phrase" in a sentence, or can define the term "dangling modifier" with ease.

The same is true of legal jargon. While the general public is surrounded by the law and references to the legal industry in their day-to-day lives, that doesn't mean they understand what Chapter 11 bankruptcy means, or how discovery relates to their situation.

Think about how you feel when you come across unfamiliar and highly specialized jargon from another field. You don't want your clients feeling that same way after reading your communications.

How can I implement plain language in my communications?

Although implementing plain language may sound difficult, there are some easy steps you can take to make your communications more understandable to your audience.

Write for the average person

An important first step is to remember that when you write for your clients or potential clients—in your website, blog, or emails—you aren't writing for the courts or for a specialist audience, you're writing for a layperson.

Don't write your client communications to impress your feared advanced torts professor or an impatient judge—write to build a trusting relationship with your clients and potential clients. Imagine that you're sitting down for coffee with a good friend who doesn't understand the legal industry and explaining what you do to them. If you wouldn't say a word, phrase, or sentence aloud in that scenario, don't use it in your writing.

Use your clients' language

Tailor your communications to the people you serve. Listen to how they talk and use similar language when you speak to them. Ask for feedback regarding your communications.

Avoid any language or phrasing that you learned the meaning of in law school.

Doing so not only improves the chances you'll be understood, it makes your clients feel that you care about them.

Check your assumptions about the language you use

If you come across any legal words or phrases that you assume everyone understands, ask a friend who isn't in the legal industry if they understand the words or phrases. Have someone with a non-legal background read over what you've written. If they stumble over language, chances are other readers will too. Replace or define those words.

Check your readability score

Readability is an important concept, and one that isn't exclusive to the legal industry. Studies of readability showed that when a newspaper article is written to improve readability, readers made their way through more of the story's total paragraphs.

You have tools available to you to check how readable your content is. If you use MS Word, open the Word menu and click Preferences. Under Authoring and Proofing Tools, click Spelling and Grammar. Under Grammar, select both check grammar with spelling check and show readability statistics.

Then, when you've written your document, go to the Tools menu, and select Spelling and Grammar. Once Word has finished checking your grammar and spelling, it shows your document's readability. A higher percentage on the reading ease scale indicates the document is easier to read and understand.

The number on the grade scale indicates the grade level required for someone to understand the document. So if it shows up at an 8, the reader needs to have at least around a grade 8 education to understand your document.

Use short sentences where possible

Not every sentence requires four commas, two dashes, and a semi-colon. The more long sentences with multiple clauses you use, the more difficult it is for readers to understand you. You can have some long sentences to enhance flow, but if you have strings of sentences with 20 words or more, your sentences are too long. Break them into two sentences or find ways to use fewer words.

One way to check if your sentences are too long is to read your content out loud. If you find yourself repeatedly stopping to gasp for air in the middle of sentences or rushing to the end so you don't lose your breath, you're being too wordy. This is also true if you repeatedly get to the end of a sentence and forget how it started.

Your readability check from above will tell you the average number of words per sentence in your document. It should be no higher than between 15 and 20 words.

Switch from passive voice to active voice

Typically, active sentences use fewer words than passive sentences. An active sentence is one with a subject that acts on its verb. In a passive voice, the subject is the recipient of the action.

An example of active voice: We filed the paperwork.

An example of passive voice: The paperwork was filed by us.

The passive voice is often used because it sounds fancier—and because many of us are used to padding word counts for academic essays. But the active voice is easier for your readers to read and understand. If your sentences are too long, see if you can switch some from passive to active.

Your readability test shows you what percentage of your text is passive. A lower percentage means fewer passive sentences.

Replace big words with shorter words

Don't use your client communications to show off your vocabulary. Where possible, replace big words with smaller words that have the same meaning. Terminate can easily become end. Expedite can become hurry. Utilize means the same as use.

You don't have to only use words children understand, but if your document needs to be more readable consider replacing complex words with simpler ones.

Use formatting to break up text

Being understood isn't just about the words you use—it's about making a document readable overall so your audience doesn't give up partway through. Keep your paragraphs to around five sentences at most. Use headlines and subheads to break up the text and guide the reader through your ideas. Make use of white space so the content doesn't feel overwhelming, and information can easily be segmented.

Legal writing is okay, sometimes

Legal writing has its time and place. It's just not necessarily appropriate when you're persuading people to work with you. Your clients are busy, and often under stress. They don't have time to look up every legal term they come across or try to sort out an unclear paragraph. If you want to attract and keep clients, show them you care about them by communicating clearly.

A good lawyer is valuable but replaceable. A good lawyer who communicates well and cares about clients understanding them is indispensable.


About the Author Heidi Turner is an award-winning legal writer and editor. Since 2006, she has helped her clients in the legal industry—including lawyers and law firms, legal technology companies, and legal SaaS organizations—connect with their target audience and establish their authority. She helps her clients find authentic ways to engage their audience and build a reputation, with a focus on client-centric communications.

In addition to her writing and editing work, Heidi is an instructor in Simon Fraser University's editing program.

#HeidiTurner #communication #legal #clientcentric

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