Even those who readily accept that plain language improves readability, understanding, and engagement often push back when it comes to legal documents. But numerous U.S. and global studies show that “legalese” results in lost opportunity for both the reader and the writer.
Legal documents, like all communications, should be easy to read, understand, and act on with the first reading. A study released just last month focused on the impact of plain language in legal disclosure documents.
The study found that:
- 72 percent of readers preferred plain language over the original text.
- They were 38 percent more likely to understand what they read and 41 percent more likely to retain the message.
- 64 percent perceived the plain language text as well-written.
- 34 percent were more likely to say it was well-organized, making them more inclined to accept and appreciate the message.
How plain language improves legal communications
Legal document translation into plain language requires much more than simply rewriting content. In addition to replacing legalese or other jargon, writers need to understand the audience and address their needs in language they understand – keeping in mind that 52 percent of Americans are at or below the basic literacy level (4th or 5th grade).
Plain language documents break down reading barriers. They focus on a few key messages, use only core language supporting those messages, and rely on simple content structure and design to ensure readability, understanding, and impact.
The movement to adopt plain language isn’t new. The U.S. 2010 Plain Language Act and several subsequent Executive Orders require plain language for all federal government legal and non-legal communications. Many states, cities and corporations have enacted similar requirements.
Here’s an example
Though there has been substantial progress, there’s still room for improvement. Consider this example from Medicare’s online privacy notice:
Original text: “The Site may request and collect certain personally identifiable information including, but not limited to, Application Data and other personal information contained in the User Submissions, through various means such as online forms, online applications, e-mail and comments submitted to the Site. – One sentence, 41 words, reading level: college graduate.
Plain English text: We may ask for and collect personal information about you. This can happen when you fill out a form or application, send us an email, submit comments or give other information while on this website. – Two sentences, 34 words, reading level: 8th/9th grade.
Strengthening the case for plain language
Other studies here and around the globe have shown that recipients of legal documents benefit when authors use plain language to improve access, understanding and engagement.
In Michigan, Florida and Louisiana studies, judges and lawyers reviewed two sets of documents. More than 80 percent preferred the plain language over the traditional versions.
In a California survey, 10 California appellate judges and their research attorneys compared plain language and traditional style passages from court briefs. They rated the traditional versions as “substantially weaker and less persuasive than the plain language versions.”
Another California study, of potential jurors in 2016, compared the readability of several plain language court forms against their original versions. The result was a drastic improvement in comprehension with the plain language versions. In one case, understanding of the form’s purpose went from 23 percent to 70 percent.
Even the American Bar Association is on board. In August 1999, its House of Delegates resolved that agencies should “use plain language in writing regulations, as a means of promoting the understanding of legal obligations.”
LanguageLine can help
The LanguageLine Clarity team are experts in reorganizing, redesigning and simplifying legal and other communications. We have been performing legal document translation for nearly four decades. Projects range from a plain language makeover of the American Express Membership Rewards Terms and Conditions to legal consent forms, privacy notices and court-issued orders.