From Legalese to Legal Ease: How to Write for Non-Legal Readers

Writing Tips

Writing TipsAfter months of shouting, bickering, and some crying, a hardworking divorce attorney completes the negotiations and calls her client to relay the good news.

“Okay, how did everything turn out”, asks her client.

“In summary, the other party, to wit, Bob Lincoln, shall convey to the second party, to wit; Sarah Smith, and to her descendants and assigns forever the whole matrimonial estate, including all real property and chattels in addition thereof.”

“Huh?”

That’s how your client—or anyone who isn’t a lawyer would react.

You might’ve gotten used to reading and writing with Latin words, legal gobbledygook, endless modifiers and clauses. But the public you’re writing for isn’t.

In this article, I’m going to give you a couple of writing tips to help you write for non-legal readers.

Get On with the Times

Businesses, private clients, and international governing bodies, are increasing the use of plain language in business and legislation. More courts are willing to classify documents as unenforceable if the relevant people it applies to can’t understand it.

Lawyers who use complicated language unknowingly distance themselves from potential clients.

It’s time to change that, so you can build your authority online and get more clients.

8 Writing Tips for Legalese Free and Public-Friendly Articles

1. Plan and Analyze What You’re About to Write

Ask yourself these questions:

Topic: What am I trying to write? Are these clearly defined ideas followed by examples and clear analogy?

Readers: Who will read this blog post? Is it for a huge corporation, soon-to-be divorced couples, or small business owners? Your reader’s demographic will affect the reading level, diction, and overall complexity of your article.

Purpose: Why am I writing this information? What do I want my readers to understand after reading this? Are you trying to explain a legal procedure, give opinion on a controversial case, or convince people to hire you?

Constraints: Is there a conflicting interest that prevents you from writing this blog post? Are you supposed to leave out certain details for privacy reasons? Do you have verifiable data or third-party sources to verify your claims?

This isn’t a writing tip per se, but planning your article helps clarify and condense your message.

2. Explain the Obvious

The technical aspects of a divorce—or whatever specialty you practice—might be obvious to you, but not your reader. For instance, you might’ve already memorized the critical sections of a pre-nuptial agreement because of your divorce practice, but a newly engaged couple has no idea.

3. Write Active Sentences

Yes, this is one of those widely repeated writing tips out there. Passive writing is the enemy of writers everywhere, not just lawyers.

In reading a company’s corporate manual, it’s common to see phrases like “Common stocks may be issued to employees by board members.” But if you think about it, “Board members may issue stock options to employees” is an easier way to write it. It’s shorter and easier to read.

4. Tell Stories

Remember the introduction to this article? It sums up the problem with lawyers writing in legalese, right?

Stories help readers understand complex ideas easier. A story puts the reader in the center of your plot, which triggers an emotional response in them when they start empathizing with your subject.

5. Chop Up Run-on Sentences

How many commas, conjunctions, and prepositions do you see in a typical contract? A lot, right?

Divide long run-on sentences to make your writing clearer. Instead of using complex clauses and too many commas, use bullet points. Your readers will understand you better for it.

6. Replace Legal Mumbo Jumbo with Simpler Words

Lawyers might not be famous for their sense of humor, but they are well-known for their dizzying variety of needlessly complicated words.

This writing tip is easy. Just check your writing for the words below then replace the mumbo jumbo with its simpler version.

Legal Flavor

Plain Writing

Forthwith Now
Whereas But
Prior to Before
In view of the fact that Because
Notwithstanding or nevertheless Despite or although
On numerous occasion Frequently or often
Subsequent After
Jurisdiction Authority
Inter alia Among others

7. Delete Unnecessary Padding

Delete the triple-pack synonyms you often use in legal documents. Phrases like “give, bequeath, and devise”, “each and every” and “indemnify and hold harmless” are useful in loophole-free contracts, but they’re just confusing to readers.

Choose one specific word and go with it. Let go of the rest.

8. Ditch the Latin

Nothing says legalese like words from a dead language. Using Latin for documents that won’t be used in any legal or business proceedings is like forcing your readers to acknowledge your vocabulary superiority over them. Just don’t.

Some Latin words are already used in everyday English, such as “affidavit,” so that’s okay. But ‘prima facie,’ ‘a quo,’ and other words with a simpler English translation don’t count.

Brilliant but Misunderstood?

You might have the smartest legal mind in the world, but it won’t do you any good if your potential clients can’t understand what you’re trying to say.

Read this post next time you’re about to write a blog post or email a client. It will only take an extra five minutes of your time to simplify your writing.

About John McDougall

John is the CEO of McDougall Interactive, publisher of The Legal Marketing Review and an authority on internet marketing for law firms. His team of over a dozen people helps law firms understand how to create a comprehensive internet marketing strategy and how to use of SEO, Paid Search and Social Media to generate more, and better, leads.

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