Lawyers versus plain language – the case for the defence
Fellow lawyers, how do you plead to the following charges?
That you: –
- recently used the terms “aforementioned’, ‘above named’ or ‘herewith’ when writing to a client?
- opened a sentence with the term “prima facie” outside your evening Latin class?
- advised your client about the “quantum” of their claim?
- told a client that the nasty substance leaking into their back garden presented them with a tortious claim against their elderly neighbor.
For many lawyers our style of writing is based on the way we have been trained, the way our firm has always ‘done things’ and because we perform certain functions such as letter writing routinely and never really think about how the person receiving the information will process it.
My late father was fond of warning his clients that proceeding with their commercial claim may result in a “pyrrhic victory”. And once, sitting in court waiting for my case, I heard a lawyer mention to the sitting magistrate that a suspended sentence would be like a “sword of Damocles” above the head of his now rather alarmed client sitting next to him. I’m reasonably confident most of our clients lacked a classical education and in some cases were barely literate.
The English language is one of glorious colour and contradiction. But arcane and formulaic legal language really has no place in our client communications when we are (hopefully) striving to make the law accessible.
When I first attended a plain language seminar as a young lawyer, the concept of untangling “legalese”, simplifying language and breaking it down from its traditional sentence structure into point form was both a revelation to me and also somewhat terrifying. I knew a particular sentence ‘worked’ with no legal loopholes even though it was 300 words long. How could I possibly substitute this for a dot pointed list? Clear legal writing is in fact a professional skill just like any other and should be part of our ongoing education as practitioners.
There are now more resources available including plain language precedents so there should be no excuses for taking a good hard look at the way we communicate.
CPD Interactive has just launched it’s latest to help you “A recipe for clear Legal writing” is now available. The course is practical and interactive. We also have Christopher Balmford’s course “Plain language for lawyers”.
CPD Interactive courses are online and interactive. They can be purchased directly from our website or delivered to your firm. Contact us for further information on email@example.com.