Why plain language matters in legal writing

Hellie Hadfield | March 11, 2024

Lawyer clicking a legal scales icon on a screen.

Legal writing can be simple, with a few artful tweaks. Image by NicoElNino / Canva licence

There’s no escaping it — legal documents sneak into many aspects of our everyday lives. They govern some of the biggest decisions and commitments people make. And yet, they are often written in language those same people can’t understand.

It’s not a matter of intelligence

Once upon a time, academics and lawyers used Latin, while ‘normal people’ used Middle English. This distinction actively helped to keep the two classes of society apart.

Today we live in a much more egalitarian society. And our language should reflect that.

Yet Latinised legalese persists.

A perception still seems to linger that legal-speak is highly intelligent, and mere mortals will never be able to understand it. But really, the opposite is true. It takes great skill to take a complicated subject and explain it in plain language. And clearer language brings to light any flaws in logic, so you can be confident your reasoning is sound.

These days courts are often unwilling to uphold contracts if the people who signed them couldn’t understand them. And with the 2022 Plain Language Act now in effect in New Zealand, it has never been more important to make legal documents publicly accessible.

It’s a matter of relationship-building

If you use legalese and outdated language in a document, you risk eroding your clients’ trust and distancing your readers. Clear language, on the other hand, will make your readers feel confident in what they’re signing, which builds trust and connection.

Plain language also helps to save time, money, and resources. And of course, it makes processes more efficient.

So remember to write for your reader. Think about who will need to read and sign the contract — is it another lawyer? Or is it someone who hasn’t spent years studying the law and absorbing legal terms? Try to hold someone in your mind — your mum, brother, best mate — someone who would take one look at a legalese-filled page and go, yeah nah. Then write for them.

Confused woman shrugging.

If your best mate can’t understand what you’ve written, chances are others won’t either. Image by Dean Drobot / Canva Licence

Clear legal writing without compromising on essential words

We understand that legal writing is very specific, and each word has a very particular meaning.

But while some terms do need to stay, lots of legal words and phrases can be swapped out. You can find plenty of other ways to present a clearer and easy-to-read contract or document.

Discover more with our legal jargon buster tool. Just head to Guides, jargon busters, and videos on our free tools page.

Plain language is far more than just the words you use. It’s also about how you organise your document, how you structure your writing, and how you present your ideas.

Start with the ‘big picture’ elements

Have a clear purpose. Make it immediately obvious to the reader what the document is about. Don’t use a generic heading like ‘Contract’, or something that only means something to you, like ‘Form 746d’.

Put what’s important to your reader first. Burying important details in tiny print, in an appendix somewhere down the bottom of 100 pages, won’t result in happy clients.

Use headings liberally throughout to signpost key details in the document. Be sure to format the layers of headings consistently, so you don’t confuse the reader — use the same style and structure for all main headings, then for all secondary headings, and so on.

Headings are particularly important in longer documents, as readers may need to be able to go through and find certain points. (Although we hope you will have put all the most important points at the beginning!)

Then look at the language elements

Make sentences short and straightforward. If you have to use legal terms, try to make them shine by creating crisp, clear sentences. Aim for sentences of 15 to 20 words, and only convey one idea per sentence. Likewise, keep paragraphs succinct and focused on a single topic.

Avoid repetition. Legal documents often have the same idea repeated in different ways, which is unnecessary, confusing, and makes the document longer than it needs to be.

Do away with old-school opening phrases, like ‘It is important to note that…’ If the idea is ‘important to note’, make sure it stands out at the beginning of the document, so it can’t be missed.

Also consider the tone you are using. Yes, legal documents are often formal. But they don’t need to sound like the King of England wrote them. Use names, and ‘you’ and ‘us’, to personalise the writing.

Consider using contractions — these are a great way to make the writing more accessible without changing any word meanings.

Once you’ve finished writing, be sure to read your piece aloud, ask someone without a legal background to read it, or ask clients for comments. The feedback might surprise you!

Magnifying glass over dense text, highlighting the word ‘legal’

Dense text with tiny margins is a bit of a brainstrain. Image by Studiocasper / Canva licence

And finally, consider your presentation

Just like the saying, ‘We eat with our eyes,’ something similar happens when we approach important documents.

A massive document of hundreds of pages, filled wall-to-wall, in tiny font, and peppered with typos, just screams ‘You’ll never be able to read the whole of me!’

So, make sure you have good margins, plenty of white space, and nicely bulleted lists. Choose a clear, easy-to-read font and make use of white space. This gives the reader space and time to absorb each message.

Diagrams, tables, and charts can convey any necessary statistics effectively, rather than reeling off lists of information.

If the document is digital, use lots of key words for easy scrolling. Also consider the F pattern (readers’ eyes naturally run along the top and down the left side of an online document, in the pattern of an F). Align your text at the left margin, with a ragged right margin for the easiest reading experience.

Finally, be sure to get the document proofread so it is free of errors. A legal document riddled with mistakes will definitely not win the trust of readers.

Still worried about replacing legal terms?

Don’t panic. We’d love it if you’d consider swapping out some of the more legalese terms, but if you really can’t, we hope we’ve given you some other ideas for creating plain language contracts.

More on how to write legal documents people will want to read

Keen to get started? Write’s Plain Language Standard is available for free download.

Download Write’s Plain Language Standard

Need help with proofreading or editing a document? We’d love to help.

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