Legalese – kicking a bad habit

What is legalese?

It is a very specific language written by lawyers that is often verbose and opaque to the lay reader. Perhaps lawyers write in a long-winded manner as it takes longer to read and write – after all time is money and this is reflected in their bill to the client. Also, perpetuating the use of incomprehensible legal jargon and gobbledygook ensures that the client is left with the impression that the legal system is complicated and best left to the “experts” to communicate with each other and “translate” the results to the client, charging handsome fees in the process. [Apologies to any lawyers reading this!]

How did legalese develop?

For a long time in centuries past, lawyers were generally the best educated and most adept with language, developing their own terminology and sentence structure. When it came to writing lawyers would use the language they were familiar with, found in statutes and legal judgments.

How to write legalese

Out of a sense of fun I give some tips on how this can be achieved.

  1. Use as many split infinitives and modifiers as possible. (Note: The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition for a modifier as: “Grammar: a word, especially an adjective or noun used attributively that restricts or adds to the sense of the head noun (e.g. good and family in a good family house).”
  2. Use long sentences – be sparing with short sentences and full stops and rely more on a liberal use of commas and semicolons. Do not be concerned if your sentences are several lines in length, or even constitute a whole paragraph.
  3. Use the passive voice, for example, “mistakes were made”.
  4. Remember to use as much old-fashioned and repetitious phrasing as possible, such as
  • “following the completion and consideration of our review”
  • “we will revert to you by way of further correspondence”
  • “we remain, dear sir, your faithful servants”
  • “in thirty (30) days…”
  • “in the sum of two hundred thousand pounds (£200,000.00)”.

Why should you avoid legalese?

Using plain English, the opposite of using legalese, is a vital means of clear communication. In other words, keep it simple. The benefits of this are:

  1. Using plain English means that clients will be able to understand what you are saying and what service they are getting. It shows clear thinking and this in turn increases their trust in you.
  2. There should be fewer misunderstandings, less confusion and ambiguity, and less chance of complaints.
  3. Clients will be more likely to ask for advice.
  4. Contented clients could lead to more referrals of new clients by word-of-mouth recommendation, a higher profile, and recognition from your peers.

In summary

It is not just the legal profession that can benefit from using plain English as all professions can increase their clarity and accuracy of communication by avoiding jargon, redundant words, and overused phrases.