Avoid Legalese: Write for Clients, Not Law Partners

Posted by on Nov 30, 2011 in Marketing, Social Media, Writing Style | 0 comments


Law school forces you to change the way you write, the way you speak, and even the way you think. Lawyers are expected to be able to speak precisely and understand complicated legal nuances. Clients, on the other hand, are known to tell wandering stories instead of relating a coherent set of facts. The slightest difficulty in understanding legal terminology or concepts can cause them to shy away. It is for this reason that you must always beware of the tone and complexity of anything you direct towards clients.

Often, a client’s first interaction with you might come from reading your website or a blog post. A client is looking for someone who understands them and their problems. It is important that you come across as human, and not a scholar sitting in an ivory tower. At the same time, care must be taken to avoid insulting your readers’ intelligence. These principals are true for all forms of writing directed at clients, whether it is a letter or a Facebook post.

In Torts class during my first year of law school, I came across the most needlessly complicated sentence I had ever seen. It came from an old British case about animals falling off of a boat, Gorris v. Scott. This may be the most convoluted thing a judge has ever written:

The argument of the defendant is, that the Act has imposed penalties to secure the observance of its provisions, and that, according to the general rule, the remedy prescribed by the statute must be pursued; that although, when penalties are imposed for the violation of a statutory duty, a person aggrieved by its violation may sometimes maintain an action for the damage so caused, that must be in cases where the object of the statute is to confer a benefit on individuals, and to protect them against the evil consequences which the statute was designed to prevent, and which have in fact ensued; but that if the object is not to protect individuals against the consequences which have in fact ensued, it is otherwise; that if, therefore, by reason of the precautions in question not having been taken, the plaintiffs had sustained that damage against which it was intended to secure them, an action would lie, but that when the damage is of such a nature as was not contemplated at all by the statute, and as to which it was not intended to confer any benefit on the plaintiffs, they cannot maintain an action founded on the neglect. Gorris v. Scott. [1874] 9. L.R. (Exch.) 125 (emphasis added).

This sentence does not sound like it was written by or for a person who has ever been outside. This passage, re-written for human consumption, could simply read: “In order to use a statute against a defendant in a negligence per se case, that statute must be intended to protect the type of victim actually hurt from the type of harm actually incurred.” When writing for public consumption, I recommend reading this absurd passage from time to time to remember what to avoid. If your client is ever forced to parse the meaning of “it is otherwise; that if, therefore, by reason of,” they will quickly find another lawyer.

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