“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Although Mark Twain wasn’t speaking about the legal profession, it couldn’t be more fitting.
It’s hard not to fall into the legalese trap. From law school onwards, lawyers are conditioned to write and speak using academic language and legal terminology. This is all fine and dandy when speaking to colleagues within law firm walls, but this complex language is all too often passed along “as is” to the legal consumer.
Remember when your mom would tell you…speak the way you would like to be spoken to? This is not only a rule for good manners but uses the power of simplicity. Take this example from Lifting the Fog of Legalese:
From a jury instruction: The fact that the defendant did not testify is not a factor from which any inference unfavorable to the defendant may be drawn.
In other words: Although Mr. Charles didn’t testify, you should not hold that against him. Don’t consider it in any way.
While you may be able to digest the point that the lawyer was trying to get across in the jury instruction, when compared to the second clarifying statement, it is unnecessarily difficult. Why should lawyers go the extra mile to make sure their communication is as clear and concise as possible?
The best way to leave a good impression on a client, or prospective client, is to provide legal advice in terms they are able to understand and relate to. Convoluted client letters, email communication and conversation style may leave your client unable to make a knowledgeable decision because they do not know what is happening. Clients may feel uncomfortable or ashamed to ask for clarification. It is beneficial to both the lawyer and the legal consumer that the language used supports the clients’ understanding. Explain legal terminology that will assist the client to better understand the process. Ask the right questions along the way to get a sense of their grasp on the issues.
The Law Society’s Practice Advisors regularly observe that client communication goes beyond language and vocabulary. Effective communication also requires lawyers to understand the attributes of their clients, related to gender, age, ethnicity, and financial status, among others. Communication is key to effective client relationship management, a skill highlighted in our new education plan.
Keep these three rules of thumb in mind:
- Keep it simple
Challenge yourself to write plainly. It is an underestimated art form to take something written for the eyes of an expert and simplify it for general understanding.
- Know your audience
The language selected for pitching your legal services to a boardroom of executives, should be very different than meeting with Julia, a single mother of two seeking full-time custody of her children. At the same time, there is a risk of over-simplification as it can sometimes be seen as talking down to a client. This does not mean you have to tailor your messages to each and every client, but rather find the middle-ground that works for most.
- Learn from pop culture
Borrow from those who know the consumer best. For instance, Apple advertising campaigns are known to be fairly successful. The iPhone 5 advertisement said “Loving it is easy. That’s why so many people do.” not “Being partial to the iPhone 5 is unproblematic because the masses also find it favourable.” Which statement is more likely to convince you to buy a new phone? Think of ways to apply effective advertising principles to your practice.
Always remember that for your clients, hiring a lawyer is often intimating enough without adding communication as an obstacle. Effective communication isn’t about how many big words and legal terms you can cram into a sentence; it is about what the listener understands.
Kimble, Joseph. Lifting the Fog of Legalese: Essays on Plain Language. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2006.