Five good reasons to avoid “legalese”
The funny thing about legalese – unnecessarily complex or archaic legal language – is that the closer you get to it, the less visible it is. Most lawyers find that they occasionally use words that can confuse or alienate non-lawyers.
The arguments for replacing archaic legal terms with plain language are familiar to most of us: when spoken, plain language helps clients understand their lawyers better; when written, it makes documents simpler and more accessible. But there are at least five other good reasons for weaning yourself from unnecessarily complex lawyer-speak:
1. It worsens language barriers
Especially if you practise law in a larger urban centre, there’s a good chance that English is not the first language of many of your clients. If understanding you is already a challenge at times, why make it harder by adding legalese to the mix?
2. It can make you sound defensive
One criticism of legalese alleges that lawyers use unfamiliar language to make the nature of their work less understandable to clients, in the hope that clients will be dissuaded from self-representation. Be assured that most clients see through this, and that using “fancy lawyer words” likely just makes you sound like you need to defend the value of your services.
3. It makes it harder to communicate well with juniors
Many judges have made an effort to adopt plain language when writing decisions in recent years, and plain-language drafting is taught at most modern law schools. This means that when you speak legalese, some of the newest members of your firm may have no idea what you’re talking about. If you want to collaborate well with the bright new legal minds that join your firm, you will need to learn their language. (English.)
4. You may be doing it wrong
While the reason for the introduction for some “legalese” terms was originally greater linguistic precision, overly precise terms can become your enemy, not your friend, if you don’t fully understand them. Are you 100 per cent sure you mean hereto, not herein? No? Legalese can actually put you at risk of making an error.
5. It can make you sound LESS, not more, competent
As plain language becomes more common in the practice of law, lawyers who cling to legalese may, rightly or wrongly, be perceived as dinosaurs. You may have taken DOUBLE the required number of hours of continuing professional development training last year, but if you continue to speak legalese, some listeners will unfairly assume that your legal knowledge is also “vintage”. Making an effort to use more modern, simpler legal expression will not only improve your client communication – it will also better reflect the currency of your knowledge of the law.
Have trouble recognizing your slips into legalese? Encourage clients and colleagues to point it out. It may be humbling at first, but it can work, and it will send the message that you’re serious about clear communication.