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Legal literacy – Solicitors Journal
Author : Rob Ashton
Posted : 15 / 12 / 08
As a solicitor, it’s likely that you’re a skilled oral communicator. But if you’re less than confident when it comes to writing, you’re not alone. Many professionals haven’t received formal writing training and instead rely on copying the style of their predecessors. Unfortunately, traditional legal writing contains many archaic, wordy phrases, which can be a little perplexing for the average person.
Communicating complex legal ideas isn’t always easy. But you’re treading on rocky ground if you don’t pay attention to your reader. If your client finds your written documents vague, hard to understand or confusing, they may call elsewhere next time. Alternatively, they may begin to mistrust you or suspect that you are hiding something.
The modern alternative is to opt for plain language – a move that is becoming increasingly popular within the legal profession. For instance, Nabarro recently launched a high-profile, firm-wide ‘Clarity Matters’ campaign to simplify the way it writes. The firm is working towards writing all its contracts in plain English. It’s also provided specialist writing-skills training for all its fee earners and legal secretaries, as well as for many of its support staff. Other firms, such as SJ Berwin, DLA Piper and CMS Cameron McKenna, have also commissioned specialist writing-training programmes.
Crucially, plain language is not about dumbing down or patronising the reader. Instead, it takes technical, difficult or complex ideas and communicates them in a structured, easy-to-read way.
The first step is to think about your reader and avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Pick the best words to communicate your thoughts, depending on whether your reader is a lawyer or a layperson. At each stage, ask yourself whether they would be able to instantly understand what you mean. Plain language also means including technical language where necessary. It’s about being precise and clarifying your points.
It’s not only laypeople who are reaping the benefits of plain language programmes. An American study by law professor Joseph Kimble asked judges to state whether they preferred legal paragraphs written in plain English or traditional style. The majority of judges preferred the plain language versions.
The message is that it’s worth making the extra effort to gain your reader’s trust by ensuring that your written communication is clear. All you need are the right tools and a little attention to detail.
The herein and aforesaid in this example are just unnecessary and make the sentence sound archaic and stilted. Replacing them makes the sentence much more readable. Note that often – as in this case – it also makes it easier to edit the sentence further.
The author of the first example is more than a little disgruntled. But the message is hidden behind too much flowery language. The second suggestion gets to the heart of the problem and makes the meaning clear. Note that the author uses the passive voice in the second example to soften the blow. You don’t always have to use the active voice (see mistake four); just make sure that if you do use it, you do so consciously.
‘Possession’ is a noun, whereas ‘possesses’ is a verb. Verbs create action in the sentence which moves the pace along and helps keep the reader’s interest. ‘We believe’ has also been taken out as the sentence already asserts the writer’s belief.
The first example doesn’t tell us who investigated the role, creating a very impersonal tone. Using the active voice makes the writing easier to read. It also forces you to say who or what (the agent) is taking the action. The second example is more specific, which makes the reader feel connected to what’s happening. Of course, the passive voice can also be useful when you don’t want to admit responsibility for an action.
A sentence more than three lines is far too long. In the first example, there are also too many brackets and too much information squeezed in one space, which can become confusing. The second example takes out all the brackets and sets everything out much more clearly.
Remember, writing clearly can save you both time and money. It may mean a bit of extra effort, but it may well pay dividends.
Robert Ashton is Chief Executive of Emphasis, the specialist business writing trainers.
Rob is a former scientist who set up Emphasis in 1998 after a career in magazine and journal editing. He designed the document analysis that underpins all our courses and believes training should always be based on evidence, not pseudoscience or wishful thinking. His writing has been featured in the Guardian and The Telegraph, as well as specialist publications including Accountancy Age, Training Journal and Nursing Standard. He's also a member of the Association of British Science Writers.
He's currently working on a new book on the science of the words we write and the effects they have on all of us.
Posted by: em-admin
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