‘The Public Speaks’: one man’s motivation to simplify legal communication

Melissa Wardell | October 26, 2016

Chris Trudeau is a professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which is part of Western Michigan University in the US. Chris is also one of 80 international speakers attending the Clarity2016 conference in Wellington.

In the lead-up to Clarity2016, we talk to Chris about an international study he and a colleague are conducting about legal communication, whose early results Chris will present at next month’s conference. We ask Chris what drove him and his colleague to initiate this worldwide survey, and what they expect (or hope) to find.

We also talk to Chris about another of his passions: health literacy. According to research, 88 percent of people in the US have some trouble understanding health information. These people risk following health regimens incorrectly, or making uninformed health decisions. And that’s something Chris is determined to change.

Q: You’re currently conducting an international survey about legal communication. What are you looking for in this survey? What will you do with the results?

A: For this study, we are really targeting how people use legal information in workplace settings. Christine [Cawthorne] and I have found in our trainings and talks over the years that many people struggle with how to interpret legal information when they need to in their jobs. For example, if someone is working in a government health department, they may frequently have to interpret not only existing health regulations, but they may have to interpret internal policy requirements. And, of course, small-business owners may have these same struggles as they struggle to navigate the licensing or other legal requirements needed to register or operate their businesses.

As we developed this survey, we tried not to have too many preconceived notions of what we wanted the outcomes to be. Of course, that was not easy. We’d love for the information to come back telling us that people struggle with legal information in their business and personal lives, which will provide much-needed data for the plain-language movement. But, ultimately, we are just seeking public input. We can learn a lot from any result.

With the results, we will publish the study and promote it widely so others can use it as evidence for the future.

Q: What do you believe is the single greatest benefit of writing in plain legal language?

A: That is a tough question because there are so many benefits of clear communication. But, to me, the single greatest benefit is how clear communication can create win-win situations for all involved. Not only can people better understand your message, but it also benefits the writer’s business objectives in many cases.

Q: It sometimes seems difficult to convince people in the legal profession to choose simpler language in their communications. Do you agree? And if so, why do you think this is?

A: I definitely agree. I think the main reason is inertia. By that I mean that lawyers have learned to write by modelling their bosses, or professors, or the great lawyers of the past. And, too often, these folks have communicated in ornate, conflated styles. But I play the long game with plain language. If we can plant the seeds of plain language in students, then as they grow to become the bosses, they will promote this to the younger lawyers. And over the generations, plain language will be the way, with traditional legal language being the outlier.

Q: To another of your fields of expertise: can improved health literacy improve patient outcomes?

A: Poor health communication is an area that is often overlooked. But it affects everyone, from patients and providers to health systems, drug companies, insurers, government agencies, and the lawyers who represent them. How providers and healthcare organisations communicate with patients is critical for patients to be able to comply with treatment regimens, make informed decisions, and, ultimately, be active participants in their own health.

It’s estimated that approximately 88 percent of people in the US have some problems understanding health information. For these people to be more literate, we need to ensure that any communication related to their healthcare is written in a clear and accessible way.

We lawyers play an important role in this. Through our role as counsel, we can do much to help create clear, health-literate materials and develop processes that not only better protect organisations, but also explain health information to patients in ways they can more easily understand. Simply put, we can create win-wins.

More about Christopher Trudeau

Chris is a professor at Western Michigan University, Thomas M. Cooley Law School. He currently teaches Torts, Property, and all of the school’s legal research and writing courses.

Professor Trudeau is a zealous advocate for plain language. He has focused much of his recent research on combating archaic, traditional language in law, healthcare, government, and business. In fact, Trudeau has published the only US empirical study on the public’s preference for plain language – ‘The Public Speaks: An Empirical Study of Legal Communication’ – in volume 14 of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing (2012).

Also, Professor Trudeau is one of the leading legal advocates on health literacy. He has recently spoken for the US Institute of Medicine and the FDA on designing clear, user-friendly consent processes that patients can understand. Trudeau has also presented seminars and webinars for numerous healthcare organisations.

Take a look at the results of the international survey — The Public Speaks: An International Survey of Legal Communication


Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.