All businesses rely on communication, internally and externally, to fulfill their mission. Clear, effective communication is ideal. Lawyers, unfortunately, have a reputation for being overly formal and wordy. We often use two words to mean essentially the same thing, and we fall back on archaic phrasing that we learned in law school.
Here’s a fairly common sentence that you would find in an ordinary business contract:
“Now therefore, in consideration of the mutual promises, covenants, and payments recited below, the receipt and sufficiency of which are hereby acknowledged by the Parties as signified by their execution of this Agreement, the Parties agree to the following terms.”
On its own, this sentence may not cause any problems, but the longer a document gets, and the more it relies on boilerplate legal language, there is a real risk that the document becomes less useful to the individuals signing it.
In the legal industry, there is a movement known as the plain writing movement, which advocates for lawyers to move away from unnecessary legalese and embrace clear language. One of the main arguments for clearer writing in legal documents is simply that people should understand the legal documents they are agreeing to. In other words, the plain writing movement is about bringing more effective communication skills into the marketplace. There are worthwhile lessons that all businesses can learn from this movement.
Avoid Getting Trapped by Custom
Lawyers draft documents thinking about how they will be interpreted and enforced based on legal precedents. This is not in itself a bad thing—after all, it would be a waste of the lawyer’s time and the client’s money to reinvent the wheel every day. But, by always looking to old examples, documents gradually become cluttered with outdated phrasing and unnecessary verbiage. All businesses operate to some degree based on “the way we’ve always done it.” This is true of both internal office procedures and external client interactions. Remember to periodically take a step back and ask yourself whether your actions and your communications need to be updated to better address present-day concerns.
Know Your Audience
All businesses use jargon and follow other industry-specific practices when writing and communicating. Relying on technical language may be acceptable when communicating with certain individuals within your industry, but effective communicators will take the time to tailor their language to different audiences. For instance, as a litigator, I might ask a judge to dismiss the opposing party’s claims for failure to make a prima facie case. In discussing the same matter with a client without a legal background, I might instead say that I believe the other side’s legal claims lacked critical evidence. Each statement has the same meaning, but by speaking in clear terms to the client, I am reducing the risk of confusion and avoiding the need for additional clarification in the future.
Clarity and Complexity Are Not Mutually Exclusive
People hesitant to embrace plain language in their communications don’t want to “dumb down” their communications. But this concern is based on a false believe that clear language cannot convey complex ideas. We assume that the longer something is, the more it reflects serious thought by its author.
But, the truth of the matter is that it is all too easy to write something overly long, jumbled, and inscrutable to your reader. In my experience, some of the best writing I have seen from other lawyers and judges is short and succinct; they tackle the subject directly and explain precisely how the law applies to the current scenario. The French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal famously wrote, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Your communications will be much more effective by taking the time to focus your thoughts into more precise, clear language — and your efforts will be much appreciated by your reader.
The Benefits of Plain Writing
There are plenty of reasons why businesses should endeavor to communicate more clearly. Disputes and frustrations arise from misunderstandings. When you communicate in clear, plain language, you minimize the chance that someone is going to walk away confused or misinformed. By taking the time to think through how to communicate your point clearly, you make yourself and your business more approachable.
About the Author: Derek Bast
Derek M. Bast is an attorney at the law firm of Bell, Davis & Pitt. Derek focuses his practice on civil litigation and construction litigation. He joined Bell, Davis & Pitt in 2017 after serving as a law clerk to the Honorable Louis A. Bledsoe, III, Chief Business Court Judge for the North Carolina Business Court.