Tamsin Constable

My challenge to lawyers – test a Plain Engish letter

I met a solicitor recently in the pub, and the conversation quickly turned to the notorious absence of Plain English writing among the legal profession. We agreed that much of what lawyers produce could very easily and cheaply be written much more clearly. We agreed too that this would make it far easier for clients to understand the legal services they are paying for.

Then my companion said something very frank indeed. ‘I think that sometimes people WANT that kind of language,’ he said. ‘It’s partly what they pay for.’

I’m still reeling a bit from this. Do lawyers and other ‘professionals’ really believe that their clients feel they’re getting a better service simply because they get documents written in grand-sounding legalese?

And of course, if you don’t understand something your lawyer has written, you’ll have to ask for clarification. Tick, tock. I’m not suggesting that this is deliberate. Just not tested.

So I propose a challenge. If you are a partner in a legal firm, and you have a standard letter that often generates queries, let me have a look at it and see whether I can re-write it for you. Let’s measure and see if the new version a) cuts the queries and b) generates any complaints about the style of writing.

As Richard C Wydick writes, ‘Lawyerisms are words like aforementioned, whereas, res gestae, and hereinafter. They give writing a legal smell, but they carry little or no legal substance.’

Plain English for Lawyers 5th ed, 2005.

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