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Legal Writing Hacks for Lawyers: An Introduction to Plain Language

published by Gwendoline Clavé on » updated on

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Last week, I attended Legal Writing Hacks for Lawyers, an online course offered by Hey Plain Jane’s Elizabeth de Stadler and Liezl van Zyl through the University of Cape Town. The e-learning module, followed by two three-hour workshops, were a brilliant introduction to plain language and legal design. In this article, I will give you a quick overview of both, and share my thoughts on the course.

Table of Contents

What Is Plain Language in Law?

The plain English movement (or plain language movement) in law was born in the 1970s out of the idea that law wasn’t intended for lawyers and judges, but for ordinary citizens. As such, it should be written in a language they could understand.1

Meant to improve access to justice, plain language first appeared in consumer contracts and on administrative forms, then in legislation. It can now also be found in employment contracts, privacy policies, and even judicial decisions2.

Over the years, governments around the world have passed laws to make plain language mandatory in specific contexts. For instance, in the US, the Plain Writing Act of 20103 applies to federal agencies, whereas the Plain Language Consumer Contract Act4 in Pennsylvania applies to businesses.

Principles of Plain Language

Plain language, or plain English5, introduces drafting principles to make a document easier to read, understand, and remember. Here are ten major principles of plain language:

  1. Think about your readers and their needs.
  2. Decide what you want to achieve with each text.
  3. Organize your document in a way that will serve your purpose.
  4. Build a logical structure with headings and subheadings.
  5. Aim for precision, clarity, and concision.
  6. Prefer short sentences, but vary sentence length.
  7. Prefer the active voice, action verbs, and simple syntax.
  8. Address the reader directly using “you” as appropriate.
  9. Avoid nominalizations, archaic words, and jargon.
  10. Define technical terms and provide examples for complex notions.

A plain language text may be longer than its legalese version, but length isn’t an issue. An inviting document will seem shorter and read faster. Still, when it comes to contracts, some lawyers can do wonders. For instance, British construction lawyer Sarah Fox writes 500-word contracts.6

Plain Language and Lawyers

Twenty-first century citizens still want the law to be written in simple, clear language that makes it easy to understand.7 Many members of the legal community, including judges8 and lawyers, also rightly prefer plain language over legalese.

Plain language may take some getting used to, but it is a worthy investment that makes a lawyer’s job easier. When clients understand legal documents, their trust in their counsel increases. They feel more confident about the documents they sign or submit. Lawyers who spruce up their contracts with plain language or legal design even notice a shorter time to execution.

Stressed, overworked judges also welcome plain language, as it reduces their mental effort and reading time.9 Some judges use it themselves to make their decisions easier to understand by ordinary citizens.2

Plain Language and Businesses

What about businesses? Quoting from Hey Plain Jane’s website10, “What many companies see as an exercise in compliance is really an investment in the success of their business.” Writing documents for users improves transparency, builds trust, and reduces the risk of dispute.

This is why the French data protection authority’s Digital Innovation Lab (LINC) considers plain language and legal design as tools that can help organizations comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).11

Some law firms understand this and introduce plain language drafting or rewriting services as a new source of income. As Christopher Balmford notes12, they “see the clarity of their writing as a distinguishing feature of their business — something that gives them an edge, something that benefits their clients.”

Expertise and Collaboration

According to Marie Potel-Saville13, “The user-centric approach to law — and plain language in particular — requires the very best lawyers […] to make that complexity accessible — without biasing the messaging, without suppressing information, without changing the legal scope.”

Plain or not, a legal document doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As Dr. Rabeea Assy explains, readers “must take into account a whole system of detailed legislation, case law, rules of interpretation and legal reasoning.”1 This requires a level of knowledge that only specialists can provide. Plain language documents are still legal documents: their creation and interpretation require input from experts.

But marketing and communications professionals can bring a fresh perspective, provide valuable insights into readers’ behavior, and pinpoint issues with a document’s structure or language. In time, they may even come to draft documents themselves and have them reviewed by lawyers, as Hey Plain Jane’s Liezl van Zyl does.

Plain Language Rewriting

But what does plain language look like in practice? To answer this question, let’s take the single-sentence, 77-word force majeure clause below as an example:

Notwithstanding any provision to the contrary, neither party shall be liable for any delay or failure in the performance of its obligations under this Agreement caused by events or circumstances beyond its reasonable control, including but not limited to acts of God, war, terrorism, labor disputes, government regulations, and natural disasters, provided that the party affected by such events or circumstances promptly notifies the other party in writing and makes reasonable efforts to mitigate the effects thereof.

We could make this sentence easier to read and understand by applying plain language principles:

Either party may face events beyond its reasonable control. Such events may include, in particular:

  • acts of God,
  • changes in government regulations,
  • labor disputes,
  • terrorism, and
  • war.

Such events may prevent a party from performing its obligations under this Agreement or delay their performance. If this happens, the affected party must:

  • notify the other party in writing as soon as possible, and
  • make reasonable efforts to limit the effects of the event.

If the affected party fulfills both obligations, it won’t be liable for such delay or non-performance — regardless of any clause to the contrary in this Agreement.

Can you see anything that could be improved? Great! Feel free to try your hand at plain language rewriting with a legal text of your choice before reading the next part. As we are about to see, we can further tailor documents to our audience with legal design.

Legal design is design thinking applied to law. Often reduced to icons and layout, it is actually a global process encompassing the user-centric approach of plain language.

As Sophie Lapisardi explains14, “With legal design, we can find solutions to unsatisfactory situations in the legal field — and there are many of those!” It can be used to design documents, services, products, and more.

When it comes to legal materials, legal design improves the user experience to increase engagement (e.g., make users want to read and understand what they read) and reduces negative feelings such as confusion or stress.

Legal design is a collaborative process carried out with users (e.g., through focus groups or interviews) by professionals with complementary skill sets. It is usually a five-step process:

  1. Understand users, their problems, and their needs (empathy).
  2. From this understanding, define a problem to solve.
  3. Explore different ideas to solve that problem.
  4. Design several solutions to this problem.
  5. Have users try one solution and give feedback to improve it. Repeat as needed.

For instance, let’s imagine that an app’s users didn’t understand, remember, or even read its terms of use. You could set up focus groups or run some tests with members of the target audience to pinpoint any issues with the document.

For a legal document, step 4 starts with information architecture.15 The content must be organized logically (using headings) and be easy to navigate and search. It should, of course, be clear — which is where plain language comes in. Visuals only come next, to support text.

As Legal Creatives’ founder Tessa Manuello explained in an earlier workshop15, visuals play an important part in communication. Adding visuals to a contract can increase information retention by 60% and speed up negotiation by 50%. They are especially helpful for non-native speakers.

Tessa Manuello recommended using:15

  • icons (with captions) to draw readers’ attention to specific sections;
  • flowcharts to make workflows and processes easier to grasp;
  • timelines to represent chronological sequences of events;
  • maps to communicate spatial information efficiently;
  • carefully selected colors and fonts;
  • comics, videos, and more!

You can see visuals in action in legal designers’ portfolios, such as Juridy’s and Stefania Passera’s. If you find comics intriguing, have a look at Creative Contracts’s gallery and Your-Comics’s projects.

Just like text, visuals should be tested with users to make sure they are suitable for their purpose. Icons should always be captioned, as they may not evoke the same concepts to all users.

In a multilingual context, localization issues can arise — as they would with marketing materials or web content. For instance, colors must be chosen with care, as one color may have a positive connotation in one culture and a negative connotation in another.

As the name suggests, Legal Writing Hacks for Lawyers focused on plain language. But as Liezl and Elizabeth explained, its principles and those of legal design are intertwined.

Before the Course: Prep Work

An e-learning module was offered on Hey Plain Jane’s platform a few days before the course. It was a good refresher on rules of English grammar and effective writing principles.

In addition, it was a quick read that included visual elements to hold our interest, and quizzes to test our knowledge. We had to pick a legal document (email, contract, opinion, report, etc.) and improve it by following a set of rules.

Day 1: Analysis and Planning

The first workshop started with realistic expectations for the course, new trends and outdated practices, a definition of plain language, and selling points for law firms.

Liezl and Elizabeth then took us through the first stages of the legal design process — defining our documents’ audience, purpose, and structure. It reminded me of marketing and copywriting courses I had taken, but the approach was highly relevant to legal materials.

The team gave us live assignments to help us redesign the documents we had picked. They gave useful feedback to every person who felt brave enough to share their work. It was interesting for me to see what everyone else was working on.

I didn’t want to use a client’s document for confidentiality purposes, but I wish I hadn’t picked an NDA template. The lack of context (e.g., who the parties were) prevented me from making the most of the assignment!

Day 2: Writing and Editing

The next day began with a discussion on the differences between plain language and legal design. The line between the two can be blurry! Some professionals consider plain language a part of legal design, while others — like Elizabeth — see them as synonyms.

The important thing, Liezl explained, is to meet the objective of clearly communicating. Plain language doesn’t always include design: you can improve the clarity of communications materials without redesigning them. But if you add icons and a nice layout to legalese, it will still be complicated.

Elizabeth and Liezl then showed us more examples of documents that implement legal design before moving on to writing and editing tips. Even as a language professional who had read and heard so many tips before, I found it all very interesting and well-structured.

I thought the team would use a few sentences from our documents as examples throughout the course, but I was wrong. They gave us personalized feedback with useful pointers to reorganize our documents, clarify our message, or choose language that suited our audience. With this highly-valuable feedback, some participants must have greatly improved their documents afterwards.

Interested in Learning More?

The 2024 session of Legal Writing Hacks for Lawyers hasn’t been announced yet.

If you are looking for a more in-depth course by the same team, you may prefer Plain Language Writing Skills for Lawyers. The format will be a bit different as this course will run on Friday mornings from February 2 to March 8, 2024.

In addition, Tessa Manuello’s Legal Creatives platform offers an immersive and collaborative experience alongside individual coaching. Tessa also hosts events, such as the Impossible Summit and her workshop “Revamp Your Contracts with Visuals” — which I had the pleasure to attend in 2022.

You can find more learning opportunities in Cassandre Tinebra and Élisa Betoulle’s Legal Design Database — a directory of agencies, associations, professionals, and courses in this field.

Last but not least, make sure to have a look at Aclara founder Anna Posthumus Meyjes’s favorite resources (including books, podcasts, tools, and more) for learning legal design or improving one’s practices.

As a Translator, Why Did I Attend?

As a translator, I don’t create legal documents from scratch, so why was this a relevant course to attend?

  • I first read about plain language in 2019, when I started a certification in legal translation from English into French. I was instantly sold on the concept, although I could see how it might be difficult to apply as a legal translator. Clear writing, in law and other areas, was the future.

    In 2020, a client approached me to translate documents written in plain language that implemented legal design. I read article after article about legal design on my client’s blog and beyond. Before I knew it, my LinkedIn feed was filled with plain language and legal design professionals.

  • I am particularly interested in how plain language and legal design can improve the documents I translate: T&Cs, privacy and cookie notices, etc.

  • Most of all, I like to put myself in my clients’ shoes, understand the issues they face, and find new ways to help them. This course seemed like a good opportunity to do so.

A lawyer-linguist — “a fancy name for a translator with a law degree,” as she put it — was also in attendance!

Added on September 11, 2023:

A Worthy Investment

A few months after I published this article, a legal design agency asked me to rewrite French terms and conditions into plain language. A challenge I was more than happy to take on! My work was of course reviewed and improved by a lawyer with a much longer experience in plain language. Two more projects followed over the summer — or rather three, since those experiences led me to rewrite my own T&Cs.

Having now rewritten about 50,000 words, I can assure you that this course was a worthy investment! While French and English differ in many ways, plain language principles can be applied to both. So when Elizabeth and Liezl showed me how to translate legalese into plain English, they also taught me how to do it in my native language!

I hope this article gave you a good overview of plain language, legal design, and “Legal Writing Hacks for Lawyers.” If you would like to know anything else about the course, feel free to ask me on LinkedIn or contact Liezl van Zyl.

Thank you for reading this far!

Do you have time for a quick survey?

  1. Rabeea Assy, “Can the Law Speak Directly to Its Subjects? The Limitation of Plain Language,” Journal of Law and Society, vol. 38, no. 3, pages 376-404, 2011. (Download PDF↩︎ ↩︎

  2. Anne Vervier and Stéphane Wegner, “Dire le droit et (pourtant) être compris” (“Stating the Law and (Yet) Being Understood”), Village de la Justice, 2022. ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. United States, Plain Writing Act of 2010↩︎

  4. Pennsylvania, Plain Language Consumer Contract Act, 1993 and Contractual Requirements, 2006. ↩︎

  5. As my friend and colleague Amber Marcum Combaud pointed out, while “plain language” and “plain English” are used interchangeably in the US, they are not quite the same thing in the UK and Australia. See for instance Greg Pendlebury’s explanation of the “subtle but important difference” between the two. ↩︎

  6. Sarah Fox, 500 Words↩︎

  7. Gary Slapper, How the Law Works, 3rd edition, Routledge, Abingdon, 2014. ↩︎

  8. Marie Depay, “Bientôt des décisions de justice faciles à comprendre ? Explications avec Stéphane Wegner, Magistrat” (“Could Judicial Decisions Soon Be Easy to Understand? Judge Stéphane Wegner Explains”), Village de la Justice, 2022. ↩︎

  9. Nathalie Hantz, “Écrits judiciaires : restez concis, s’il vous plaît ! Le point de vue de Marie Potel” (“Judicial Writings: Please Be Concise! Marie Potel’s Perspective”), Village de la Justice, 2022. ↩︎

  10. Hey Plain Jane, Our story↩︎

  11. Névine Lahlou, “Les enjeux de la communication claire appliquée à la protection des données” (“The Stakes of Clear Communication Applied to Data Protection”), LINC, 2021. ↩︎

  12. Christopher Balmford, “Plain Language: Beyond a Movement,”, 2002. ↩︎

  13. Marie Potel-Saville (CEO of legal design agency Amurabi), “From GC to Entrepreneur, Creating a Company from Scratch,” Legal Creatives Impossible Summit, June 15, 2022. ↩︎

  14. Nathalie Hantz, “Écrits judiciaires : restez concis, s’il vous plaît ! Point de vue de Sophie Lapisardi, avocate” (“Judicial Writings: Please Be Concise! Lawyer Sophie Lapisardi Weighs In), Village de la Justice, 2022. ↩︎

  15. Tessa Manuello (founder of legal design training platform Legal Creatives), “Revamp Your Contracts with Visuals” mini-workshop, August 17, 2022. The statistics she cited are from John Medina’s book Brain Rules and World Commerce and Contracting. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

Gwendoline Clavé, Legal English-to-French Translator

Gwendoline Clavé

Hello! I’m an English-to-French translator based in Marseille, France. When I’m not translating legal documents or SEO content for IT companies, I’m rewriting legalese into plain language. On this blog, I share thoughts and information on diverse topics at the crossroads of translation, law, and IT.

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