In Praise of Plain Language

Vol. 1, No. 8

Jan Matthew Tamanini concentrates her Harrisburg, PA, solo practice on business, administrative, and government law and estate planning. She chairs the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Plain English Committee and the GPSolo Division’s Business Opportunities and Commercial Law Committee. Contact her at JMTLaw@plainenglishlaw.com, or visit her website at www.PlainEnglishLaw.com.

 

  • Impress with your attentiveness, not your vocabulary.
  • Learn about reflexive listening.

 

“The power of clear statement is the greatest power at the bar.”

 

That statement by William H. Moody, US attorney general under President Theodore Roosevelt, is as true today as it was in his time. One of the reasons we lawyers get a bad rap from those who have not experienced the joys of a legal education is the tendency many of us have to write—and speak—to others as if English were our second language, or as if we were born more than a century ago.

In some cases, our law school days may have led us to overly complex or flowery prose, but with others, it’s a habit of longer standing. No one is immune to the lure of shiny new words; it’s important, though, to know when (and how) to use them.

Why is it that we sometimes think we sound more intelligent if we use words that few others understand? Even worse, sometimes we use obscure terms incorrectly.

Regardless of the reason, it’s time to drop-kick anachronisms and legalese to the curb! Yet all too many of us seem to need a reminder of this in our day-to-day work.

The general frustration with the style of writing that has come to be known as legalese isn’t anything new. A full 75 years ago, Fred Rodell, then dean of the Yale Law School, wrote, in an ironically titled law review article, “There are two things wrong with almost all legal writing. One is its style. The other is its content.” Goodbye to Law Reviews, 23 Va. L. Rev. 38–45 (November 1936).

None of us is perfect, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on striving to be better. The payoff for working to get there? More income!

Demystifying the law for your clients means both better understanding and fewer questions or ill feelings. Nowhere is this more important than in the engagement letter. If your client doesn’t know where the representation begins and ends, you’ll have at minimum an unhappy client, and at worst a malpractice or disciplinary case.

 

Know Your Audience

You shouldn’t write to a client in the same way that you would write to a court. Keep things simple and clear. Avoid Latin terms or other legal terms of art—you can communicate any concept without them! Perhaps it will take a few words beyond the legal shorthand, but this is one of those times that less isn’t necessarily better.

Make a conscious effort to connect with your clients when you’re speaking with them. In person, eye contact does more than simply making your client feel you’re paying attention; it’s also an excellent way to gauge whether you’re making sense to that client. If you see a glazed-over look in the eyes, a wrinkled brow, it could mean your words are equivalent to a foreign language.

Asking at regular intervals if your client has any questions, whether in letters, emails, or meetings, is a good way to gauge how well you’re being understood. When your client asks you a question, use reflexive listening: pause and repeat the essentials to start your answer. Sometimes we hear what we want to hear—not what the client wants us to hear.

It’s perfectly fine for us to use common legal terms when talking with other attorneys or judges, or in briefs or pleadings. But if you address a jury throwing around terms they don’t often (or ever) hear, you’re inviting trouble for your client. Even in attorney-to-attorney communications or court filings, don’t feel compelled to use legal-speak where there’s a perfectly satisfactory way to make your point without it: it’s not a contest to see who can cram more Latin terms into a sentence.

If you tweet or blog, your tone should be conversational. An excellent legal example is Kelly Phillips Erb’s Taxgirl blog. If you can manage to make a complex subject (like taxes) interesting on a daily basis, you’re on the right track!

Plain language doesn’t mean “dumbing down” your material; it means you use appropriate language for the individual or group with whom you’re communicating. Writing, and speaking, more clearly yields big dividends: in litigation, in transactions, in all aspects of our day-to-day business.

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