How legal writing can be a communications tool

By Geneviève Fortin Winter 2017

How legal writing can be a communications tool

 

If you’re a lawyer, you’re used to reading and deconstructing long, dull and complex documents. That’s what you do for a living. But how well do you tolerate complexity? How do you feel about reading the terms of your mortgage, documents from Revenue Canada, or your investment statements?

Now imagine how your clients might feel reading your letters, legal notices and contracts.

Not only are they often overwhelmed by the complexity of what you’ve written, but many of them feel they are paying a lot for your services only to be left in the dark.

Our relationship with information is changing and we expect more of the professionals we hire. Now more than ever, your clients assess the quality of your services by placing a premium on the simplicity of the advice and documents they receive. Whether your client is an individual, an employee from another department or a business, simplicity is indicative of quality.

Legal docs designed like comms tools

Communicating requires a sender and a receiver – it’s a two-way relationship. Your client receives a large quantity of information from you and has to take in relevant information and understand that information in one reading.

If lawyers are poor communicators, it’s not because they don’t know how to write. It’s because good communication requires that the recipient read and understand what you have written. That says it all.

You can revise your legal notices and contracts to make them clearer without losing their legal rigour. To achieve this, you must learn to design them more like communication tools, which involves much more than just using plain language!

Rethink the structure of your documents Your clients are not all lawyers, meaning that you don’t necessarily share the same legal logic. They ask questions they hope you will answer quickly. Your legal thought structure (stating the facts, making your arguments and providing your conclusions) doesn’t necessarily meet their needs. In some cases, it may be wise to start with the conclusion!

Give your reader some background Lack of context is a common problem when it comes to legal content. It’s important to situate your reader. Why this document? What are your objectives? It’s akin to presenting the forest before the trees. The context allows the reader to anticipate the rest of the document and gives them confidence they will understand the subject being addressed.

Choose your messages Your recipient will retain less than 10 per cent of what they read. That’s what the studies say. So choose your messages wisely (a few of them, not 50!) and present them in an order that is logical for your reader, while making sure they stand out. When used correctly, a title hierarchy is quite effective.

Write to be understood Being told that you write like a lawyer is rarely a compliment! Such comments bring to mind legal jargon, polysemous words (words that have a different meaning in general language), very long sentences, passive constructions, unending lists, double negatives and the like. Become aware of the complexity of your writing style and “unlearn” that way of writing that you have put a lot of effort into learning.

Templates on trial

Document templates – which you use on a daily basis – are likely hindering your efforts to simplify your content. If templates are long, complex and impenetrable, it’s not surprising that your documents end up being written the same way.

There are significant and oft-ignored costs to the complexity. The firm’s image – and your image as a professional – are surely feeling the impact, because a professional who writes in a manner not easily understood is indicative of inaccessibility and is hardly satisfying from a client experience perspective. That same client will necessarily ask a lot of questions. And these questions cost them money. Professionals constantly reorganize existing content and add new elements with each new use, which creates inconsistencies, errors and phrases that don’t make sense.

Revising and simplifying your templates takes time, energy and often, creativity. There is a cost involved. But it’s an opportunity to make choices, question certain elements that are clear to no one, remove any ambiguity, reformulate, clarify.

It is above all an opportunity to write in such a way as to actually meet your clients’ needs and make them feel like you really have their interests at heart. It’s also an opportunity to let them appreciate the full value of what you do!

Geneviève Fortin is a lawyer and cofounder of the consulting firm En Clair Service-Conseil in Montreal.

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