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Legal Writing Hacks for Lawyers: An Introduction to Plain Language

published by Gwendoline Clavé on November 30, 2022

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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 introduction to both, and share my thoughts on the course.

Table of Contents

What Is Plain Language?

The Plain English Movement (PEM) 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.

Governments around the world have since passed laws to make it mandatory in specific contexts. For instance, in the US, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 applies to federal agencies, whereas Pennsylvania’s Plain Language Consumer Contract Act applies to businesses.

Plain Language Principles

Plain language, or plain English2, 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.

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.3 Many members of the legal community, including judges and lawyers, also rightly prefer plain language over legalese.

Plain language makes a lawyer’s job easier. When clients understand legal documents, their trust in their counsel increases. They can talk about the next steps, rather than ask for clarification. They feel more confident about the documents they sign or submit.

What about businesses? Quoting from Hey Plain Jane’s website, “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.

Some law firms understand this and introduce plain language drafting or rewriting services as a new source of income. 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.”4

Expertise and Collaboration

According to Marie Potel-Saville,5 “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.

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. 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 a legal document, step 4 starts with information architecture.6 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.

Visuals play an important part in communication. Adding visuals to a contract can increase information retention by 60% (John Medina, Brain Rules) and speed up negotiation by 50% (World Commerce and Contracting).6 They are especially helpful for non-native speakers.

In an earlier workshop, Legal Creatives’ founder Tessa Manuello recommended using:6

  • 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;
  • and more (e.g., comics)!

Just like text, visuals should be tested with users to make sure they are suitable for their purpose.

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. Since plain language has been around for nearly 50 years, could it have evolved into legal design?

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 next session of Legal Writing Hacks for Lawyers will take place on April 3-4, 2023.

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 10 to March 17, 2023.

Each course is offered twice a year and costs 2,500 South African rand (currently about 140 EUR or 145 USD). UCT provides a certificate of attendance afterwards.

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!

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.

  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. 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. For the purpose of this article, I have used them as synonyms, but I will look into the differences. ↩︎

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

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

  5. 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. ↩︎

  6. Tessa Manuello (founder of legal design training platform Legal Creatives), “Revamp Your Contracts with Visuals” mini-workshop, August 17, 2022. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

Gwendoline Clavé, Legal English-to-French Translator

Gwendoline Clavé

As a language professional, I wear many hats, including legal translator, SEO content writer, and digital marketing coordinator. I use a combination of linguistic, legal, and IT skills to see my clients’ projects succeed. On this blog, I share thoughts and information on diverse topics at the crossroads of those fields.

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