Challenging Traditional Legal Communication: A Drafting Toolkit for Non-Lawyers

Christopher R. Trudeau, JD

Christopher R. Trudeau, JD

Mr. Trudeau began his presentation by leading his audience through his Prezzi “Swimming with the Sharks,” a detailed list of strategies for convincing lawyers to adopt plain language. He includes lawyers on the list of causes of low health literacy. Among the rational arguments for using plain language are that plain language is economical and the public prefers it, including lawyers themselves, according to a study conducted by Trudeau. He cited several examples of proof that plain language is economical, including a clarified billing statement that resulted in an 80% increase in patient payments at the Cleveland Clinic. 

Trudeau outlined the process and results of conducting a survey with 376 respondents, including details about the respondents’ education level and specifics about the kinds of language choices they preferred. Interestingly, as the education level of the respondents increased, so did the preference for plain language. He asked participants to choose between “traditional’ language examples and plain language examples. Eighty percent of the participants preferred the plain language version, which included choosing between active vs. passive constructions, strong verbs vs. nominalizations, plain words vs. complex words, and explaining vs. not explaining legal terms.

Trudeau also discussed common myths about using plain language, among them that using plain language prohibits the use of legal terms, and creates vagueness or ambiguity. He elaborated on ways to challenge these myths in the second part of his presentation, in which he described the drafting process from the lawyer’s point of view. 

He spoke in sentence level detail about fixes for problems with three different types of ambiguity (syntactic, semantic and contextual ambiguity) and gave examples of each. In opposition to the usual rule of using fewer words, he recommended giving time and space to define legal terms. Trudeau spent the remainder of his presentation discussing examples. He included an example of a consent form, an ever-present challenge to plain language and health literate communication.