Plain English is Good Client Service

Before I became a business coach for lawyers I was an advocate of drafting legal documents in plain English.  I felt it was good for the business of my law practice.  Drafting agreements my clients could easily understand helped them feel more in the loop and therefore more satisfied with me and my legal services.

I also presented continuing legal education classes promoting the use of Plain English.  The seven tips of Plain English Legal Drafting is based on my materials that supported a Plain Language Drafting for Lawyers CLE presentation I did over 14 years ago trying to convince lawyers to change their writing style. I wish I had had my coaching training then – I believe I would have done a better job persuading the attendees to start changing their legal documents to make them more reader friendly.

 October 13, 2011 has been set as Plain Language Day.  Check out their FaceBook page for more information.

 Plain English is Good Legal Marketing

 Using plain English is an excellent relationship building skill and therefore good legal marketing.

Draft your legal documents in plain English to set you apart from those lawyers unwilling or unable to draft in plain English.  Draft documents your clients can understand to give you an edge in delivering good client services over those lawyers that still don’t. 

The benefits of plain English legal drafting include:

  • Your clients will appreciate understanding what’s going on.
  • You’ll meet your professional responsibility to keep your client informed.
  • You’ll increase your client’s trust in you and your abilities.
  • You’ll increase your client’s confidence in your abilities – clients instinctively know that a good lawyer is one they can understand.

Seven Tips for Plain English Legal Drafting

1.       Use ordinary, familiar Words

Avoid compound phrases when a simpler alternative will do.  Don’t use legalese, jargon, archaic language, or foreign terms.  Use shorter, simpler synonyms when possible.  For example: 

make payment = pay

provided that = if

by means of = by

2.       Use the Active Voice

Using the active voice makes a sentence easier to read and clearly identifies which party is obligated to do what.

For example:

Passive:    The work was completed by the Contractor.

Active:                      The Contractor completed the work.

 Passive:                    The change order was approved.

Active:                      The Architect approved the change order.

3.       Don’t bury verbs in nouns  

If the verb works use it rather than bury it in a noun.  This makes your writing more certain and reduces the number of words used.  Buried verbs weaken a sentence because they mask the action.

For example:

poor:         The Contractor must give consideration to…

better:      The Contractor must consider…

poor:         The parties reached an agreement…

better:      The parties agreed…

poor:         Please submit an application…

better:      Please apply…

4.       Use Definitions the Parties Recognize

For example:

poor:         Mortgagor, Mortgagee

better:      Borrower, Lender

poor:         Buyer, Seller

better:      Jones, Smith

5.       Avoid Multiple Negatives

Double or layered negatives make sentences difficult to understand.

For example:

poor:         I do not disagree.

better:      I agree.

poor:         You may not avoid following the rules.

better:      You must follow the rules.

awful:       I cannot say that I have not wished that they had not been denied payment.

better:      Sometimes, I wish they had been paid.

6.       Write Short Sentences

Shorter sentences are easier to read. 

7.       Use the Present Tense

Draft in the present tense unless the past or future tense clarifies the idea.

For Example:     

future:                  The parties shall agree as follows:

present:               The parties agree as follows:

I trust you’ll enjoy writing agreements that your clients appreciate and understand because those same agreements will be easier for you to get through too.

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