Writing in plain English – a question a day

I am really excited to have Sarah Fox, the 500 word lawyer, speaking at my first Manchester KN-UK event next Tuesday (22nd March) and again in Birmingham on Tuesday 14th June.

Knowing Sarah, it’s going to be a very interesting, practical and useful session.

However, as I know this is a topic which everyone is interested in *right now* I asked her a couple of questions over the weekend and I’ll post her answers here this week.

Firstly I asked her if there truly was a problem with poor communication in legal documents and why we should bother to write more clearly, because it often takes more time than wheeling out the usual stuff.


“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”

George Bernard Shaw

The legal profession tends to believe that it is better than average at communicating with its readers – clients, staff, prospects, judges and social media users. Regrettably, in many cases that confidence is misplaced. In fact Bryan Garner, a leading US advocate of plain language for lawyers, says that the legal profession suffers significant barriers to communicating including:

We persist in making our profession exclusive, all the while rationalizing our inability to write well by invoking age-old legal standards

We have a history of wretched writing … [these] poor models that continually fortify the lawyer’s bad habits (1)

External factors can encourage you to write more effectively.

Over the last 40 years, across a wide range of industries and services, there has been a push towards the adoption of plain language with ‘consumers’ (in the UK this has been led in part by the Plain English campaign). The U.S. and South Africa have introduced laws requiring authorities to use plain language in public documents (2). The UK government recognises it has a role to play and commissioned a report on ‘When Laws Become Too Complex’ in 2013 although without any real proposals for change!

Although many plain language campaigns are often restricted to public sector bodies or consumer laws, plain language is good practice in all business documents. Plain language is ‘communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.’

“Don’t write merely to be understood.
Write so that you cannot possibly be misunderstood.”

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (3)

There may also be internal pressures, from your firm or bosses. Many law firms include straightforward, clear, or plain-talking as one of their values. Although – initially – staff will spend more time preparing simple, clear documents, your readers will spend less time reading and interpreting them. This saves your firm time and money, as well as reducing the risk of misunderstandings, calls to clarify and ask further questions, and breaking trust with your readers.

As you become more skilled, effective writing will become second nature to you.

(1) Garner (2002), The Elements of Legal Style, chapter 1

(2) For more information on government initiatives on plain language, see the PLAIN website.

(3) More exactly in Book VIII of his De Institutione Oratoria “We should not write so that it is possible for [the reader] to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us.” (95 AD)


Sarah will be answering another question tomorrow, so follow the blog (button at the top right) to get notified when it is posted, or sign up to my newsletter for a monthly round-up of blog posts and other interesting stuff.

And if you are near Birmingham on Tuesday 14th June, come along to Sarah’s training session and learn how to make skilled, effective writing second nature to you.

About knowledge4lawyers

I am a lawyer and a Knowledge Management expert. Through The Knowledge Business I help law firms improve their efficiency and profitability through knowledge services - consultancy, training and implementation help.
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2 Responses to Writing in plain English – a question a day

  1. Pingback: Getting savvier … | Knowledge for Lawyers

  2. Our next Birmingham KN-UK session is by 3Kites on Tuesday 10th May on new KM technology trends. http://www.knowledgenetworkuk.com/newkmtech.html

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