When I mention to friends that I like to advocate plain language for law contracts, I often get the reply: “Lawyers would never agree to that; if contracts would be written in understandable (plain) language, no one would need to hire lawyers.”
I disagree. Lawyers are trained to understand the law that is often written in legalese. One of the lawyer’s missions is to convey the relevant knowledge into their client’s contracts. Lawyers know the risks and limitations of signing a contract and what to include in a contract to avoid those risks. The applicable law might be dated a century ago, but that does not mean that today’s contract needs to be written in language from that era. A contract is not supposed to be incomprehensible; lawyers should translate their knowledge based legalese into current, simple language. That way their clients would know what they were signing and paying for. So yes – we would still need to hire lawyers.
By the same token, clients need to understand what is covered by a contract and what is not. A contract clause in legalese does not lend itself to that understanding. Clients who come across a contract written in legalese are often embarrassed to ask what is meant by some of the incomprehensible clauses. They don’t really understand what they are signing for. All they can do is hope that their lawyer has their best interest at heart. Even if the client has the courage to ask, it is likely that the (often verbal) explanation will be long forgotten by the time the contract is called upon. Result: the client will feel moderately satisfied at most with the contract that has been drafted by the lawyer.
Surprisingly there are still law firms that ask high fees for:
ancient or legalese word use
referring to out-of-text information (law articles)
There really is no need for that.
Benefits of plain language for lawyers
Working at a law firm in Holland over 20 years ago, I was introduced to plain language. We were encouraged to draw all of our contracts in plain style. The results:
increased customer satisfaction as clients would understand what they signed up for when signing a contract
efficient, faster lawyer-client communication as it eliminates questions about unclear, legalese clauses (also less client frustration when client tries to reach lawyer to have their questions answered)
more time to focus on the essence of law rather than on explaining legalese.
Intimidating, disempowering, obfuscating: lawyers need a new, more positive label and plain language is the path to that.
Merel Elsinga is a copy editor, proofreader and an advocate of plain language based in Sidney (BC), Canada. She has a background in Dutch law. Merel has been a professional sailor as well, in which capacity she did not just sail oceans, but also provided international cuisine for guests on board.
Merel is a member of Editors Canada.