The public speaks — lessons for lawyers

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One of the best presentations I’ve heard in recent years was about an empirical study into what clients really think of their lawyer’s writing style. Although much of it was somewhat predictable, there were still some surprises. My quick summary below should be a shot in the arm for anyone who writes legal text without making a conscious effort to avoid legalese!

About the responders and the questions

A diverse group of 376 people responded to the survey, ranging in age from 18 to 80 years old. Their educational qualifications ranged from high school diplomas to doctoral degrees. The law firms that invited their clients to participate in the anonymous survey represented various practice areas, including civil defence, civil litigation, estate planning, and family law.

The study was primarily designed to test whether responders preferred plain legal language or traditional legal language. The test questions were carefully constructed to avoid skewing the answers to plain language. The questions covered four areas key to plain language: active v passive voice, strong verbs v nominalisations, plain words v complex words, and explaining a legal term v not explaining.

The three stand-out highlights

Interesting too, were the responses from law firms that declined to participate. Reasons ranged from not wanting to bother clients with ‘trivial matters’, to one managing partner who said he was afraid of the responses his firm’s clients might provide.

Plenty of food for thought here! And some help here.

This study was done in 2012 in the US. Its author is Professor Chris Trudeau of Cooley Law School, who will present the results of a wider study, which includes New Zealand law firms, at Clarity2016. More to come!

 

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