Progress in the legal profession: how plain language is enhancing access to justice

Progress in the legal profession

Complex jargon. Long-winded words. Strung-out sentences. Even Latin.


These are the elements of legalese: the language that has long detached our legal system from the people it is supposed to serve.


Although many lawyers see it as part and parcel of their profession, this mode of communication creates unnecessary confusion, costs and delays. All impeding your firm’s or organisation’s efficiency – and your clients’ access to justice.


The solution? Plain language.


Simple is safe

Clarity is key for reducing risk in legal service – especially when drafting legal documents.


What’s more, ambiguous documentation increases the scope for disputes, complaints and negligence suits against you.


With long sentences, complicated language and the misuse of punctuation, you risk failing to reflect your client’s intention or agreement. Canada’s “Million-Dollar Comma” case is just one of many, many examples


When you use plain language to get to the point, your work is less open to interpretation – and more in line with your clients’ requirements and instructions.


A step in the right direction

Lawyers are gradually adopting plain language – favouring the efficiency and clarity it creates.


However, many lament letting go of legalese. Some think it’s their secret to looking like they know what they’re talking about.


But here is the thing: your clients – and co-workers – need to know what you’re talking about too.


Lawyers aren’t paid to sound smart. They’re paid to make the law make sense.


That’s why the more simply you can explain something, the better you are at your job.


So when it comes to communication in the legal profession, simple beats sophisticated. The best lawyers use plain language to communicate clearly. And get the best outcomes for their clients.


Keeping clients in the know

Clients’ tolerance for language they don’t understand is at an all-time low. And gone are the days when they would offload their legal problems without question.


Now more than ever, they demand a holistic service. One where they are involved in the entire process. One where you can explain every aspect of their situation, so it makes sense to them.


Besides, it’s only fair that the person paying your professional fees understands what you’re talking about.


Bridging the gap between client and lawyer

The benefits of plain language go both ways.


Seeking legal help can be an uncomfortable process – so it’s natural for your clients to keep their distance. But overwhelming them with complex communication will further discourage them from playing their part.


With advice they can understand, your clients are more inclined to stay involved. They trust you more. Their instructions become clearer. And your job becomes easier.


Upholding access to justice

Plain language breaks down the barrier between your client and the justice system.


Documents riddled with legalese take longer to understand. Your co-workers waste time reading them. And you waste time giving your clients extra explanation.


These small delays create one big problem: unnecessary costs for your client.


A lawyer’s role is to make sense of the law for their clients. Not charge them for time wasted on writing legal advice and documentation they can’t understand.


These costs are particularly problematic for less privileged clients. The more legal services cost, the less accessible they become.


Even if your clients can afford it, they’ll be hesitant to access services they can’t understand. If people feel like they lack the knowledge to have a conversation with you, they won't try.


It can take time to simplify your work. But keeping things clear from the start will save time for you – and your clients – in the long run.


A favour for your finances

Clients’ costs aren’t the only ones to worry about. Your organisation’s finances will also benefit from the perks of plain language.


When complex language causes delay, the commercial effects on your business compound.


Your costs start to blow out. And you may not be able to charge for the time spent on clearing up confusion. Even if you can, those costs will be far more than you quoted.


Clients need to see value for money and efficiency of service. If they decide the delay isn’t worth it, they’ll be quick to take their business elsewhere.


Here’s a tip: treat your co-workers like your clients. Deliver your work to them in the same simple format with wording that is easy to understand.


Plain language: the people’s preference

So, you’ve learned why plain language is so important in legal practice.


Now, it’s time to take the next step – and learn how to apply it.


Swap complexity for clarity. Simplify your structuring. And use words and phrases your clients will understand to save hours – if not days – of costly confusion.


Want to improve how you communicate with clients and colleagues?

The College of Law makes it easy.


Download our Plain Language Guide or enrol in our Drafting Skills CPD courses: