The professional benefits of using plain English

PlainEnglishwithTDLast week’s post focused on how lawyers can enhance relationships with their clients using plain English communication. I raised the point that our clients often have a certain expectation about the kind of language lawyers should use, and how there needs to be explanation and education about the benefits of plain language. Those same expectations undoubtedly exist across the profession—amongst our colleagues and in the judiciary—so, to encourage the use of plain English, we also need to tackle those perceptions.

As we all know, one of the essential prerequisites of good communication is to know your audience. This is true across all forms of writing and speaking and is especially important when you are trying to persuade your reader or listener. As lawyers, when we are communicating with colleagues and judges, we are very often trying to persuade them to come around to our point of view.

So, what does this have to do with plain English? Well, the current belief amongst many lawyers is that the use of legalese is the only way to draft legal documents and to address the bench in court. But if we really think about the questions “who is my audience?” and, moreover, “what will appeal to them?”, we can see that the use of plain English is actually very helpful.

First of all, keep in mind that when I am advocating the use of plain English, it is not a suggestion that language should be simplistic or colourless. One of the first aspects of knowing your audience is knowing their level of education and understanding, how they might usually speak and write, and therefore how sophisticated your language can be. In the case of communicating with judges and fellow advocates you can, therefore, afford to use sophisticated language. But in doing so, you can also still stick to the tenets of clear, direct, and concise communication—plain English is not just about your vocabulary (although the words that you use are an important consideration), it is also about things like sentence construction and structure.

Make a positive impression with judges and colleagues

Once we’ve thought about the kind of language that we can employ with our audience, the second thing we need to think about is how to best engage or persuade them. As with any audience, in considering communication with other members of the profession, put yourself in their shoes. That should be relatively easy if you are already a lawyer yourself. Think about, for example, what characterises the professional life of a judge or an advocate in India? What difficulties do they face and what would, therefore, be most helpful to this audience and most likely to make a positive impression?

Obviously, the answers to those questions have to address the fact that Indian courts are massively over-burdened and judges must bear an almost impossible caseload. Advocates and lawyers, too, work very long hours and have many clients and cases to attend to. In such a scenario, I would suggest that the number one benefit of plain English is efficiency and ease of understanding.


Imagine the relief of a tired and busy lawyer or judge when they reach for the next motion, brief, or letter and find that it’s written clearly and well, and that they only have to read it once to appreciate the argument or message contained in it. In court, when there is certainly no time to waste, those who speak plainly, clearly, and well will impress the bench with the fact that they are able to get to the point and explain their matter succinctly. A lawyer can build a good reputation with such skills, and is considerably better placed to persuade effectively.

Finally, in case you think that I am merely relying on my own suppositions in making this argument, there has been research done in this area. A study was conducted through the School of Law at the University of Texas in the U.S. into whether judges prefer plain English, legalese, or informal writing. The results clearly demonstrated that judges overwhelmingly favoured the use of plain Legal-Writing-and-Professional-CommunicationsEnglish in legal writing, finding it to be clearer, more understandable, and ultimately, more persuasive— by a margin of two-thirds (See, Sean Flammer, “Persuading Judges: An Empirical Analysis of Writing Style, Persuasion, and the Use of Plain English”, The Journal of the Legal Writing Institute 16 (2010) at 183.). Given that these are all qualities that most lawyers aim for, this study demonstrates what is apparent to the finest lawyers in active practice—that good use of plain English is essential to effective communication and advocacy.

(Tennille Duffy is part of the faculty at


But the law isn’t in plain English!

PlainEnglishwithTDWe now know the borders of the plain English debate—we know what legalese is and what writing using plain language involves. A common objection that arises at this point is along the lines of:

“Hang on a minute – all this plain language might be well and good, but should we really write in plain English when the law itself is not in plain English?

This objection involves at least two aspects — firstly, that it’s hard to write in plain English when so much of the law is not expressed in that style. Secondly, that there’s something not quite right about a lawyer discarding legalese and writing in plain English. Let me tackle both of these issues.

To express my response to these objections, I will frame the job of a lawyer, especially when it comes to interacting directly with our clients, as having two principal parts.

Guide and interpreter

The way I see it, the law is a foreign land for most people and a lawyer must, therefore, act as both guide and interpreter. We have to ensure that we not only take our clients through this foreign land, but that they are also able to understand what is happening to them and their lives. So, not only do we have to be able to interpret the “foreign” language that a lot of the law is expressed in – that is, legalese – and when our clients are equipped with that translation, we also have to be able to guide them through the land and help them to make good decisions.

If we lawyers think of ourselves as interpreters, then any concerns about writing in plain English should easily be discarded. If you cannot explain a complicated concept of law relatively simply for the benefit of your client, then perhaps you do not understand that law well enough yourself. Understanding the law is not always easy, but as Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

I’ve already discussed in my previous posts how it is far more helpful to our clients if we write in plain English. Even the people we are trying to help may, at least initially, rebel against this approach. This is where the second objection often arises.

If, for example, you were to hand a contract drafted in plain English to a client and receive a negative response, you would not be the first lawyer to have had that experience. As with the wider profession, we also have to educate our clients and convince them of the benefits of plain English expression.

It is not uncommon for clients to have preconceived notions about lawyers and how they should communicate. That stereotype can easily translate into believing that lawyers only do their job properly if they use words that are big enough, if the documents they produce sound “lawyerly” enough (even if clients don’t understand them), or if the other side is being beaten into submission by a display of pompous, English-accented, verbosity.

We all know that those things are not the real skills of a fine lawyer or advocate, and we need to show our clients that too.

Show them real advocacy skills

You may well wonder how else you can prove your worth as a lawyer without fulfilling the expectations of the client. But a skilled lawyer does not need to hide behind useless words and flowery prose. Rather, a skilled lawyer takes their client along for the ride. A skilled lawyer’s clients are comfortable with the process and understands what is happening in their case. They have confidence in their lawyer not because of how fancy or educated their lawyer sounds, but because their lawyer has explained their case and the law to them clearly, and they have been able to ask questions and understand the answers. Their lawyer has given


them sound advice and has helped them make a decision that puts them in the best position possible, in the circumstances, to get a good result. Plain English helps us prove our worth to our clients in these ways, even when the way the law itself is expressed remains obscure and out-dated.

There are also wider professional benefits that go beyond our relationships with our clients. I’ll be discussing those in my next post. In the meantime, I hope you all consider using plain English to make your clients a part of the journey and don’t simply expect them to sit down on the bus, put a blindfold on, and not say a word.

(Tennille Duffy is part of the faculty at


What is “plain English”? Why should you use it?

PlainEnglishwithTDIn last week’s edition of Plain English, I outlined some of the problems that the use of legalese creates, and argued that the use of plain language allows for much more effective communication. Many of you, however, may still be unsure about what exactly plain language, or plain English, is.

There are many definitions of plain English. This one, from the Oxford Guide to Plain English, focuses on its purpose:

The writing and setting out of essential information in a way that gives a co-operative, motivated person a good chance of understanding it at first reading, and in the same sense that the writer meant it to be understood.”

So, writing in plain English means writing in a way that can be understood the first time by the person who is reading your document. It involves communication that is as clear and direct as the circumstances allow.

And what is plain English not? It is not a more basic, or a “dumber”, way of writing. It does not involve the use of slang or colloquial language. It may involve expressing yourself simply, but it is not simplistic. It can be as formal or as informal as the situation demands. Think about the way you would talk to someone if you were both in the same room and you wanted them to understand you—that’s probably pretty close to plain English!

Secondly, it is not a shortcut. Do not think that drafting a document in plain English will take you any less time, or care and attention, than a document drafted using legalese. In fact, expressing the kind of complex concepts that lawyers have to deal with in plain language can often be a very challenging task. But it is what we must do if we want to communicate effectively with our clients, colleagues, and decision-makers.

Thirdly, plain English writing (and speaking) need not be devoid of style. It is not necessarily boring to write in a way that ensures your audience doesn’t have to read a sentence several times to comprehend what you mean, or run to a dictionary to understand complex or obscure words. In a later post in this series, I’ll be sharing some examples of elegant and exciting plain English writing but, for now, trust me when I say that it is possible to write well in plain English, and for that piece of writing to be a joy to read.

You should take the effort to write in plain English because it is your job, as a lawyer, to communicate effectively. Your audience will thank you for making their life a little easier, and because they will be able to understand the document you have prepared. You will also reveal yourself to be a clear thinker and someone with the ability to present complicated concepts in a simple and comprehensible way, which is a very valuable skill indeed. Finally, keep in mind that writing that is clearer, and more understandable, is ultimately more persuasive too.

Remember that horrible legalese sentence from last week’s post?

“As stated heretofore, the landlord’s conduct created, caused, and resulted in serious bodily harm and massive injuries, to wit: a broken and mangled left leg, lacerations to the aforementioned leg, and several broken digits on the foot attached to said leg, in witness whereof was the spouse of the injured party.”

Legal-Writing-and-Professional-CommunicationsLet me finish off by presenting you with a plain English alternative:

As stated, the landlord inflicted serious injuries on the tenant. The injuries included a broken left leg, lacerations to that leg, and several broken toes on the left foot. The tenant’s spouse was witness to the incident.”

Now that’s an improvement, isn’t it?

(Tennille Duffy is part of the faculty on