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What do clients really think of their lawyer’s writing style?

08 November 2016

Overseas research on the question of what clients really thing of their lawyer’s writing style has already been completed and reported, but what do New Zealand clients think?

This question will be answered at the upcoming Clarity Conference, Clarity2016, to be held in Wellington from 3 to 5 November.

Professor Chris Trudeau of Cooley Law School looked at this question in a study conducted in the United States in 2011. Professor Trudeau will present the results of a wider study, which includes New Zealand law firms, at Clarity2016. Professor Trudeau is due to begin the New Zealand research soon.

What the survey found

A diverse group of 376 people responded to the 2011 survey, ranging in age from 18 to 80 years old. Their educational qualifications ranged from high school diplomas to doctoral degrees, writes Clarity International’s New Zealand representative, Lynda Harris, in a blog on the survey (writeclearlyblog.com/2016/08/24/the-public-speaks-lessons-for-lawyers/ ).

“The law firms that invited their clients to participate in the anonymous survey represented various practice areas, including civil defence, civil litigation, estate planning and family law.

“The study was primarily designed to test whether responders preferred plain legal language or traditional legal language.

“The test questions were carefully constructed to avoid skewing the answers to plain language. The questions covered four areas key to plain language:

  • active versus passive voice;
  • strong verbs versus nominalisations;
  • plain words versus complex words; and
  • explaining a legal term versus not explaining.

Stand-out highlights

“The three stand-out highlights of the study were:

  • 99.7% of responders thought it was important to understand what their lawyer wrote. Yet 71% said they had received a document from their lawyer that was difficult to understand.
  • As complexity of text increased, so did the preference for plain language. This response applied across all education levels.
  • Responses across all questions varied only slightly according to education level – around 3% to 4%. This percentage only varied when the responder had a law degree!

“Interesting, too, were the responses from law firms that declined to participate.

“Reasons ranged from not wanting to bother clients with ‘trivial matters’, to one managing partner who said he was afraid of the responses his firm’s clients might provide.

“There is plenty of food for thought here,” Ms Harris writes.

It is difficult to get past the fact that almost 100% of people thought it important to understand what their lawyer wrote.

It saves money!

Writing clearly to suit the needs of your clients strengthens relationships, saves time and money, and boosts efficiency.

A growing number of firms around the world recognise that plain language is no longer an optional extra. Rather, it’s something that can define them. As American best-selling author and entrepreneur Seth Godin said: “You can either fit in – or stand out. Not both.”

The New Zealand results that will be revealed at Clarity2016 will be interesting.

A number of law firms in this country have made a commitment to effective communication, with plain language at the forefront of their various messages.

This has been reflected in the awards law firms have achieved in the annual Plain English Awards, which have been running for just over 10 years.

The law firm winners have included Legal Beagle and A J Park, with the Ministry of Justice also picking up a victory. This does not tell the whole story, however, as lawyers were involved in preparing many of the winning entries over the years.

At the same time, however, many firms continue to use language that makes their communications difficult for people who do not have legal training to comprehend, or comprehend fully.

Clarity2016 (see www.clarity2016.org) is the conference of Clarity International, an international association promoting plain legal language. Clarity’s two patrons are Sir Kenneth Keith and retired Australian High Court Judge Hon Michael Kirby AC.

This year’s conference has attracted keynote speakers such as Solicitor-General Una Jagose, Hon Kirby, Sarah McCoubrey and Dr Paul Wood.

Last updated on the 8th November 2016