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Legalese or clear English?

Legalese* is used a lot and is not what I call clear content or simple communication.

Legalese is usually both longer and more complicated than is necessary to communicate a message. Most people don’t read it in full because it is looks too boring and hard. And it isn’t truly necessary most of the time.

If you have terms or other important information to communicate with clients, by all means get a lawyer to review it for you to ensure you are saying the right things. However, make sure the information is presented clearly.

To help make it clear:

  • find a legal advisor who is happy to work with you for commercially sound content – at a minimum, get them to approve what is written meets the requirements (and no more) even if they would prefer to include a lot more
  • write a short and simple message and link off to a comprehensive list of legal terms elsewhere. The message alerts people that terms exist but keeps your main message clear – and most people really don’t need to know all those terms. I have used this strategy on product disclosure statements – we state the basic rules that apply to most people and list the finer terms elsewhere for unusual circumstances. The result is that people actually read those documents rather than letting them collect dust as they appear too hard.
  • use good formatting to make the content visually appealing – lots of small print, long sentences and numbered items in paragraph style is very off-putting

What do you think – do you read content that is obviously legalese? Do you find some of that small print information worth reading, if only presented in a clear way?

I can think of a few instances where a document has not answered a question so I have to skim through a lot of tiny terms to find the information. A shorter legal statement with important details or a well set out page of terms would be much easier to achieve the same goal.

* Legalese is the usually complex way lawyers write information to ensure all angles are covered and liabilities avoided.

11 Responses to Legalese or clear English?

  • tashword says:

    I just came across a piece of writing I felt obliged to share with this post on legalese…

    “Fog in the law and legal writing is often blamed on the complex topics being tackled. Yet when legal texts are closely examined, their complexity seems to arise far less from this than from unusual language, tortuous sentence construction, and disorder in the arrangement of points. So the complexity is largely linguistic and structural smoke created by poor writing practices.

    “Legalese is one of the few social evils that can be eradicated by careful thought and disciplined use of a pen. It is doubly demeaning: first it demeans its writers, who seem to be either deliberately exploiting its power to dominate or are at best careless of its effects; and second it demeans its readers by making them feel powerless and stupid.”
    (Martin Cutts, Oxford Guide to Plain English, 3rd ed. Oxford Univ. Press, 2009)

  • HRA says:

    I completely agree with this post — I think going to law school makes you prone to “wordy passive voice disease”.

    The issue becomes tricky when something is worded a certain way to avoid legal liability — as a lay-person, it can be hard to tell when the wording is personal style or actually has legal implications.

    Writing a clear and straightforward product disclosure and then linking to the details makes perfect sense. I would still suggest running the ‘short and snappy’ version by a lawyer, just to be safe. I might be overly cautious, but whenever I make changes to something written by a lawyer, I get them to double-check it to make sure it’s okay.

    • tashword says:

      Hi HRA, thanks for joining in 🙂

      You’re right – it takes careful reading and reviewing to ensure the message is not changed while simplifying it.

      I have worked with a number of lawyers and compliance people – it is interesting how some are very uncomfortable with a short version (they can’t tell me anything wrong with it but are nervous about not having so many qualifiers included) whilst others are surprised at how concisely I write their message and how effective it then is.

      Trust me – a product disclosure statement never gets published without legal/compliance review, no matter how long or short it is! The financial industry is too tightly regulated for any unnecessary risks.

  • UmiNoor says:

    It’s as if by writing in legalese, these lawyers are hiding something from the people who didn’t go to law school. I myself don’t read all the small prints or Terms of Service if it’s written in such a manner as to make it more confusing. I appreciate websites that make their TOS easy to understand and those that provide an FAQ page for their visitors.

    • tashword says:

      Hi UmiNoor and thanks for adding your ideas. I agree that more people will actually read the terms and details if they are written in a way people can easily understand.

      While some lawyers may be trying to sound impressive and hide details, I think many are just used to reducing risk by covering every possible angle in words rather than covering them less specifically but just as effectively.

      • UmiNoor says:

        But they can still try to reduce the risk and covering every possible angle by using clear language. Is that so difficult? I suspect they just want to either appear impressive or they’re counting on the fact that people don’t really read every thing if it’s written in a confusing language.

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  • Robin says:

    Interesting topic! I’m not into law but this information brought a clear understanding to me of what legalese is. 🙂

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