In remarks last week, NSW Chief Justice Tom Bathurst talked about a number of things – Depressed Darth Vader, hipster drinks – including the tendency of lawyers to be ‘needlessly wordy’. His concern was that plain English is taking a back seat to legal jargon. That means less people are reading and engaging with the law.
We agree. It is important that the public have faith in the court system, and that people are able to understand why rulings are made. But as legal writers, there’s another reason we care: because the law is fascinating.
Every new piece of case law has at its heart real people locked in conflict. Law regulates everything we do, and describes our society’s shared values and principles. If you’re not making that interesting, you’re missing an opportunity.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how fascinating your source material if you don’t do it justice. And it isn’t easy. Legal writing comes with some special challenges, which apply even more to web content than to the long legal judgments the Chief Justice is talking about. Here’s just three of those:
1. Risk aversion
Lawyers tend to be risk averse, and rightly so. As specialised professionals, they are potentially liable to clients who have relied on their advice. That can mean that lawyers, not wanting to be hauled up on negligence charges for an ill-told piece of advice, err on the side of neutrality. The only problem with that is that neutral can often tip over into bland.
A legal writer shouldn’t be a pundit, of course, but nobody wants to read a recitation of dry factoids. Lord Denning, perhaps the greatest English judge of the twentieth century, is an excellent model of a writer who used description and narrative to set his scenes. His writing championed plain English and made people want to read more.
Your web content should act as a first step for people thinking of ringing a lawyer for more advice. Keep your advice general, but don’t be afraid to illustrate with (anonymised) real life examples.
Imagine a thriller that opened with the following line:
“It was a dark, more dark than average, in that the cloud cover stopped the light of the moon (itself reflected light from the sun) from providing any light, and stormy, by which I mean there were thunderclouds portending lightning, not that there was actual thunder or lightning occurring at the time of this telling, night: about 11pm, to be precise”. I’ve lost you, right?
When a binding decision can turn on the parsing of a particular phrase, you become very precise in choosing your words. Unfortunately, when it comes to story telling, sometimes the most precise word isn’t the most evocative one. Stopping to explain each word ruins the flow of the story.
Non-legally trained writers often struggle with writing for law firms for this reason. If you don’t know whether a term has particular legal meaning, you’ll either end up using the driest terms possible, or sacrificing legal accuracy for melodious sentences.
Lawyers, on the whole, talk to other lawyers. We draft letters to the lawyers representing the other side, hold conferences with those same lawyers, and in court appearances speak for the benefit of the judge. Long hours and intense workloads leave little time for socialising.
Add to that the fact that law is a very technical area, with many terms of art, and it quickly becomes another language.
Unfortunately, your readers switch off when they don’t understand the words you’re using.
In Australia, the average adult has a reading age equivalent to a Year 8. 45% of Australian adults have reading skills below the minimum required to navigate the complex demands of modern life. Read your legal explainer to a passing thirteen year old: do they understand it? Then go ahead and hit publish.
The good news is that you have a rich seam of material to work from when you’re writing marketing content for your law firm, and there’s never a shortage of news. Don’t be afraid to inject some personality into your writing, and it’ll become far more readable.