Insist on Plain English Documents

Several years ago there was a post on Cohousing-L related to the community's legal documents that were written in "legalese." I had recently researched Plain English for Lawyers for a neighbor. She was a single parent trying to set up legal guardianship and financial oversight for her daughter in the event of her death or disability. She had asked me to read the document her lawyer prepared to see if there was anything she or her lawyer had missed.

The document was totally incomprehensible.

I had been grievance chair, chapter president, and board member of a large AFL-CIO affiliated university union and had extensive experience writing academic policies for the university where I taught. I like sorting out language in general, so I do a lot of it. But I could not understand anything is will except that it was supposed to be will. In the backward way legalese treats subjects and objects, it was not possible to figure out which was which. There were more "shall nots" than "shalls." And the words used were certainly not on the new Webster's Collegiate Edition. No Scrabble points for any of them.

Without the document, I and her mother's friends would have contacted her family and done the logical things. With the document, not only would we not know what to do but we would be afraid to do anything. We might be doing something illegal. Legalese is largely intimidating.

This is totally unnecessary, and has been for over 20 years. Major universities and bar associations have been teaching Plain English and sentence structure at least that long. There are many guides for lawyers now that assure them they do not have to use 19th century boilerplate language in order for the court to recognize a document. Some courts, of course, will do anything, but the Plain English movement has been around a long time. Lawyers who have not studied it should be embarrassed.

Plain English

Insist on Plain English documents and choose a lawyer using this as a criterion. Or you could take what the lawyer gives you, and translate it (if you can). This is a good way to see if you understand it. I just worked on a revision of Takoma Village's bylaws. While they weren't total legalese, there were incomprehensible sections. Most of those were boilerplate language that hadn't changed in decades — you can search them in Google. I remember we left one paragraph in because it was there and appeared online everywhere else. We had no idea what it meant so we couldn't translate it. It stands out a bit in the other paragraphs of Plain English.

Some sources now recommend dropping "shall" because it is often misinterpreted. That's an argument I won't go into here. Using "will" is just fine.

Resources on Plain English:

A Plain English will as an example:

Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick is in its 5th edition and has been used in law schools for 25 years.

The University of Massachusetts has brief list of tips on drafting laws for communities that will give you sense of how cities can use Plain English. If they can, you can:

Plain English Bylaws from a non-profit organization that are probably much less detailed than condominium bylaws need to be, but they are a good example of readability and even colloquial language in a legal document:

And finally the website of a legal firm that represents condominiums and believes in Plain English. Lots of information posted. Some recommendations will be more restrictive than cohousers think they need but ......

The only way for people to take legal documents seriously is if they make sense. Understanding legal documents is essential to understanding governance. Good governance is what makes strong organizations. So using Plain English is important to democratic governance. It's an equalizer.