Are lawyers terrible writers? Depends on how you measure.
We all know that lawyers write long, convoluted, jargon-packed documents just to confuse the rest of us, right?
Well, not quite. We non-lawyers may find legal documents confusing all right, but that’s generally just an unintended consequence.
For most lawyers, job #1 is protecting the interests of the client. The documents they write are essentially just tools for accomplishing that goal. Whether any non-experts understand the document is not so important.
But what if lawyers did write in plainer language? Would it help their business? Might it even make life easier for them in certain ways?
Tialda Sikkema believes the answer is yes. A faculty member at the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, she trains budding law students how to design, structure and write legal documents.
Netherlands has long been a leader in plain language, in part because it sees accessibility of the law as a civil right. Thus it is one of the few places where you will find someone like Sikkema: a non-lawyer with the job of helping law students think like lawyers but write like regular humans.
It’s an approach that is both idealistic and practical. While it is hard for anyone who learned traditional legal drafting to re-learn how to draft in plain language, new students can learn Sikkema’s way just as easily as the traditional way.
Two features stand out in Sikkema’s approach. One is that students’ drafts are reviewed in class, meaning that identifying issues and possible solutions becomes a group exercise.The second feature is that the training doesn’t end with feedback. Students polish their drafts until they’re readable. As Sikkema notes, the process of writing always involves rewriting.
And how do her students like the idea of being taught plain language? “That’s hard to say, since we don’t tell them that’s what they learning,” says Sikkema, with a sly smile. “We just present it as good legal drafting practices. But the more time they spend dealing with old-style legalese, the more they come to appreciate the advantages of the new approach.”
Click to see this column in the August 2015 issue of Discover Benelux.