Lawsanga blog, July 2008
Lawsagna: Your work is in the area of plain language. Can you tell us about that? What's plain language all about?
Cheryl Stephens: Plain language is writing, or any language, that is clear and understandable, so that it's easy for people to get — and use — information that is important to a person's life.
Lawsagna: What kind of information?
Cheryl Stephens: Well, think of anyplace you've seen legalese in your own life: contracts, regulations, waiver forms and releases, even the agreement you have to sign whenever you install software or sign up for something online.
Lawsagna: And you're saying those things don't have to be written in legalese? Isn't the law inherently complex?
Cheryl Stephens: There is no reason that legal language — language regulating legal rights and duties — has to be incomprehensible. It can be made plain enough for its intended audience.
Plain legal language is being written every day. Those who defend out-dated, poorly-written gibberish on the grounds of its complexity should be embarrassed.
Lawsagna: What other common arguments against plain language do you hear?
Cheryl Stephens: People say it is "talking down" to people or "dumbing down." I have learned that real experts have internalized and integrated their special knowledge to the point where they can talk of it in simple language—without any mystery. Anyone who can't do that, and complains about being asked to "dumb it down," is a pompous ass.
Lawsagna: If few lawyers and few clients like to read legalese, why do you think we continue to see it? What is the biggest barrier to the wide use of plain language?
Cheryl Stephens: Lawyers need to develop new writing habits. That is all. Once you have learned to write legalese and you have done it for years, it is ingrained in your thinking patterns.
I have been working at plain language for 19 years, and still, my first drafts often follow traditional legal phrasing and sentence structure, and I have to think twice about word choices.
So make that two things: develop new writing habits, and allow yourself enough time for each writing project to do it right.
Lawsagna: Are there any risks of using plain language?
Cheryl Stephens: Depends who does it. A person who is not well-versed in the law, in general, should not write contracts. But many organizations think they can write their own plain language contracts. I do not advise it because there have been lawsuits resulting when an amateur's rewrite changes the substantive content. Lawyers better do it.
Lawsagna: In our fast-paced world, people look for easier and faster ways to process information. Internet and social networks have changed the way we read, aggregate information, and collaborate on projects. What is the relationship between plain language and Web 2.0?
- Plain English is the language of the Internet, and W3.
- Plain Language favors the use of standard grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I am not sure those standards are respected by Web 2.0 (btw, can you define that in plain English?).
Lawsagna: It looks like people are still debating the meaning of Web 2.0. According to Wikipedia, which is an example of Web 2.0, "Web 2.0 is a term describing the trend in the use of World Wide Web technology and web design that aims to enhance creativity, information sharing, and, most notably, collaboration among users." So, can we say in plain language that Web 2.0 refers to the use of web technology and web design to promote creativity, information exchange and collaboration among users?
Lawsagna: Do certain practice areas use plain language more than others?
Cheryl Stephens: Family law, juvenile law, criminal law, immigration -- for individual practitioners. Banking and consumer law for institutions (but not by their choice).
Lawsagna: Do you have any suggestions for someone who wants to find a lawyer that uses plain language?
Cheryl Stephens: No, my suggestion is to lawyers: advertise that you provide service in plain language—if it's true.
People are always asking me for a referral to a plain language lawyer in a particular practice area in a specific geographic area. I send out an email asking my contacts if they know of someone. This is always anecdotal. To my knowledge, only major Australian law firms have pushed their plain language skills in their marketing.
Lawsagna: In your book, you talk about visual aids. Could you explain their function in legal writing?
Cheryl Stephens: Charts, graphs, maps. These are increasingly being used as schedules to laws, by-laws, and contracts. For any legal matter that a firm handles regularly, the firm should (have an expert) develop some graphical resources for client use. These reinforce the message in your text.
Also, you have written on your blog about the different learning styles of students. People have different information-processing styles, too. So the more variety you use in correspondence, the more likely you are to get the information across.
For example, if clients are missing important appointments, consider using three tactics in future:
- Send a clear, simple letter that ONLY confirms the appointment (and has no substantive material).
- Include with that letter a page, or appointment card, showing:
- the calendar month with the date checked,
- a clock face with the hands set to the appointment time.
- Have your receptionist call the day before to confirm the appointment.
It may seem like a big hassle, but it will work.
Lawsagna: What do you need to know to write in plain English?
Cheryl Stephens: We have a process which takes into account the reader's interest, reading skill, and need for the information. It is an elaboration of the classical approach to writing effectively.
By the way, we now talk about plain language instead of plain English, because the ideas apply to communication in any language. Whatever the language, the aim is clarity and usefulness of the information.
In English, a number of shortcuts and guidelines have been developed to help the person who is not a writer by profession. Most of the US state laws requiring plain English set out some of these as requirements or measurements of plainness. In Canada, the laws tend to demand qualities like "clear" or "readable" and so on.
Lawsagna: You're having a contest, aren't you? What's that all about?
Cheryl Stephens: It's a contest to rewrite a section of the U.S. Copyright Act — both to rewrite it as the law would look in plain English, and to write a clear explanation for the general public.
Lawsagna: What are you trying to accomplish with this contest?Cheryl Stephens: I want to show the difference between legal drafting and legal writing. One task is to redraft the legislation in plain language, and that's a specialized skill. Not every lawyer needs to know how to do that. But the other task, to explain the law in plain language — that's a skill every lawyer does need.
Lawsagna: And that's what your new book is about?
Cheryl Stephens: Yes. I wanted to write a simple but complete guide for lawyers who want to make their writing clearer.
Lawsagna: Well, I think you've done a great job. Can you tell us where we can learn more about the book, and about the contest?
Cheryl Stephens: Yes, there's a web page for the book. PlainLanguageLegalWriting.com, and there's a link to the contest on that page as well.
More from July 2008