Plain English?

April 15, 2016

A recent column in the Law Society Gazette (Want plain English? How about ‘get lost’?) lambasted the Legal Services Board report on ‘Lowering Barriers to Accessing Services’ for its suggestion that lawyers should make an effort to use more accessible language.
The danger with ‘plain English’ campaigns, according to the author, is that they undermine the profession, thereby painting a picture of lawyers as ‘antiquated duffers bamboozling their clients to stealthily hike fees’. Meanwhile, we are told, clients are patronised as ‘the mindless Angry Birds generation who cannot possibly comprehend lawyers’ jargon.’
The background here is that the Legal Services Board is not popular with solicitors, for various reasons. However, we were genuinely shocked by the sarcasm of some of the comments posted in support of the article. 

These commentators seem to find it funny that the vast majority of people in this country cannot follow basic legal documents or afford a solicitor to review them. Since law intrudes on most people’s lives at some point that is bad news, particularly against a background of ravages to legal aid.
Take litigants in person. One of the worst side effects of the legal aid cuts is the court delays. Judges and court staff now spend a considerable amount of time helping litigants in person negotiate the courts. It’s hard to see why anyone would be against a legal system that expressed itself a bit more clearly, in this context.  
The issue of litigants in person is something for the government to address over the longer term and there is certainly a case for plain English in court documents. However, the legalease does have a role to play – for example in the way judges make their rulings, and no one would suggest that the subtleties of legal reasoning should be swept away. 

As legal communications specialists, Infinite Global specialises in helping law firms with their conversations with the media, peers and indeed clients. In any strategic media or stakeholder engagement campaign it is crucial to consider your audience: there must be scope for both shorter, terser communications and longer, more in-depth pieces.

The main point is that you miss a trick if you do not address the different needs of your target audiences. These days, media such as linkedin require shorter form communication that that required in the nineteeth century and no doubt in one hundred years’ time the form will have moved on again. 

That is the commercial dimension, there is also the longer term cultural dimension which is as follows: the legal profession has no option but to engage with the wider population if it is to avoid future accusations of being out of touch.