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Beginner's Guide

Benefits of using plain language in legal design

Discover the benefits of using plain language in legal design, including greater accessibility, efficiency, and trust. Learn how to write in plain language and find resources to improve your skills.
Bilgehan Arifoglu


“Within the scope of this paper, we will explain the benefits that come from the judicious use of clear and unambiguous terms when preparing our legal documents.”

This can feel like an overly complicated way of telling the following: In this article, we'll look at the benefits of using plain language in our legal documents. This may seem lame, but this is how the majority of people experience legal documents.

what: an essential part of legal design is the use of plain language. Common language is communicating with your audience in a way they understand the first time they read or hear it. This is another way in which legal design is committed to accessibility and inclusiveness.

Why is it important: Clear and uncomplicated language makes legal documents accessible to everyone. People with low literacy or language barriers often need help understanding legal documents. Incomprehension or inaccessibility of necessary information can have serious consequences, especially in a legal context. Plain language is an excellent way to overcome these obstacles.

So this is actually ONE sentence 🥶:

“Article 2 (2) (b) of Directive 2000/78 must be interpreted as meaning that a difference of treatment indirectly based on religion or belief, arising from an internal rule of an undertaking prohibiting workers from wearing any visible sign of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace, may be justified by the employee's desire to pursue a policy of political, philosophical and religious neutrality with regard to its customers or users, provided, first, that policy meets a genuine need on the part of that employer, which it is for that employer to demonstrate, taking into consideration, inter alia, the legitimate wishes of those customers or users and the adverse consequences that that employer would suffer in the absence of that policy, given the nature of its activities and the context in which they are carried out; secondly, that that difference of treatment is appropriate for the purpose of ensuring that the employee's policy of neutrality is properly applied, which entails that policy is pursued in a consistent and systematic manner;, thirdly, that the prohibition in question is limited to what is strictly necessary having regard to the actual scale and severity of the adverse consequences that the employer is seeking to avoid by adopting that prohibition.” (Court of Justice of the EU judgment final paragraph of C-804/18: IX v WABE eV and MH Müller Handels GmbH v MJ.)

Creating better legal experiences

A better legal experience for everyone can be created by using plain language. This is not only limited to non-legal readers, but can also give the business community a significant boost. It starts with asking the question: what do I want to achieve and how should I communicate that? Is complicated legal jargon necessary? In most cases, it can do without it.

For example, instead of writing “pursuant”, you can use the more simple phrase “according to.” Instead of “notwithstanding”, use “notwithstanding”. These small changes can significantly affect the accessibility of your legal documents.

Another example of something that is difficult to understand: “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary herein, the first party has full authority and discretion to take all actions necessary to protect its interests.” In plain language, it would look like this: “Regardless of everything else in this document, the first party can do what it needs to do to protect itself.”

Clear language also makes legal documents more efficient. Instead of wasting time deciphering legal jargon, clients and lawyers can focus on the content of the document. Simplifying this can save time and money for everyone involved.

Clear language can also help build trust between parties. Between you and the client, but also between your clients and their clients who use the documents in simple and easy-to-understand language. Ultimately, people want to do business and that is based on trust. Legal matters are added to secure the deal, but it starts with trust. Simple language is therefore a lubricant for business.

Contracts written by lawyers, for lawyers

The use of complicated and inaccessible language has long been a stereotype of the legal industry. Breaking with this' tradition 'is a great step forward towards accessibility and inclusiveness. Embracing clear language can help get rid of this negative label.

A readable contract is a short contract. Keep it short, but don't detract from the message. This isn't always an easy task; Cicero said it before:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
— Marcus Tullius Cicero, philosopher and statesman

Almost any traditional lawyer can write long and complicated contracts. The superheroes of law will be the ones who can shorten these complex contracts and make them easier to understand. 🦹

How to get a grip on writing plain language 🕵️

To become a superhero of the legal world, plain language writing is an important skill to master. Here are some tips on how to improve your plain language writing skills:

  1. Use simple words: Avoid long or complicated terms if there is an easier alternative. Use words that are commonly used and easily understood by most people.
  2. Keep sentences short: Long, complicated sentences can be challenging to read and understand. Try to keep your sentences short and to the point.
  3. Use active language: In active language, the subject of the sentence acts. Using the active voice makes writing more engaging and easier to understand. For example:
  4. Passive tone: “In case of non-compliance with all permits and conditions, bonds will be withheld.”
  5. Active tone: We'll keep your deposit if you don't meet all licensing requirements.
  6. Handy complex ideas: If you have a difficult concept to communicate, break it down into smaller parts. Use headings, bullet points, or (numbered) lists to make information easier to digest. This tactic is also something that is very easy to link to accessibility and UX design. You can check out our other articles for more information!
  7. Test your text: Once you've written a document, test it with someone who is unfamiliar with the topic/product. Ask them if they understood what was written, and if not, which parts need to be clarified.
  8. Read and learn from examples: Reading sample texts in plain language can help you understand how to structure a text and present it succinctly.
voor en na een complexe juridische taal
Before and after of a complex legal language

Clear language guidelines

The demand for the use of plain language is increasingly being supported in society. This is something that governments can demand and enforce, and fortunately, there is movement on this front.

Until then, you can already have a positive influence in the legal sector by simplifying things and making legal matters accessible. But be aware that this is a difficult skill to master and, like Richard Feynman did with his teaching skills, requires a great deal of dedication.

Clear language is an essential part of legal design. Incorporating them into your work can make legal documents more accessible, efficient, and reliable. So, the next time you draft a legal document, try to use (some) plain language.

For now, we can share an (incomplete) list of clear language lessons to help you get started:

  1. The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN): https://www.plainlanguage.gov/
  2. The Center for Plain Language: https://centerforplainlanguage.org/
  3. The International Plain Language Federation: https://www.iplain.org/
  4. Sitio web de The U.S. Government's Plain Language: https://www.plainlanguage.gov/
  5. The European Union's Publications Office guide to writing in plain language: https://op.europa.eu/en/web/eu-vocabularies/writing-in-plain-language

You can also check out our other beginner guides”legal design“and”design thinking“read.