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Plain: Not So Simple

By Andrew Sharp on January 13, 2016

One of the most important things about running a legal information website like IllinoisLegalAid.org is making sure that all of the valuable nuggets of information are written in “plain language.” Although it sounds like a simple concept, it can be very difficult to actually write in a way that can be understood by a majority of the general public. It is especially challenging when it comes to legal information because so often the law is written in very complex "legalese." Teasing out the main ideas and rewording them into a digestible form can be extremely difficult.

I've been thinking lately about why plain language is such a challenge. Here's a rough list of my conclusions:

  1. Law School. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is a tendency in legal writing classes in law school to write in a way that sounds smart. That is, in a way that uses big words, big sentences, and unnecessary legal Latin. I can remember as a 1L wanting to pack into my briefs as many fancy lawyer-ish words as I could: “inter alia,” “heretofore,” and “consequently” just sounded smarter than their plain language equivalents, “including,” “until now,” and “so.” That’s how the judges write in the dusty old opinions we read, so isn’t that how we’re supposed to write?
  2. Jargon. This does not only apply to legal words and phrases. Sometimes, we can fall into habits of using certain terms that make perfect sense to us, but are totally foreign to people outside of our bubble. Take, for example, my title. I am a Content Manager, but as was pointed out in recent scrum meeting, no one (other than people in our line of work) knows what “content” is. Or, at least they don’t have the same definition as we do. So, we can’t expect a user of our website to know what we’re talking about when we say “Click on this piece of content” or “Which type of content do you prefer?” By “content,” we mean any legal information that is stored on our website and designed to be delivered to the user, whether that be via video, text, image, etc. But this is not at all clear to a user who may never have heard that word used in that way before.
  3. The (mind-numbingly frustrating) English language . “Content” is also a homonym, so they might first think that we mean conTENT, as in “happy.” This may seem like an inconsequent element of the English language but for LEP (Limited English Proficiety) communities -a population we seek to serve - it can present enormous challenges to comprehension.

The truth is that even judges prefer plain language over unnecessary complexity in writing. In fact, as of 2010, it is legally required of federal agencies that they publish information designed for the public in plain language. And in the scientific community, there is a growing movement to make findings more accessible to the public. No matter who you are, it seems, you are able to better understand information when it is written plainly.

Of course, sometimes, there is a little-known phrase that has no plain language equivalent, and you just have to use it to get your point across. It is much easier to say “plaintiff” than to say “the person who started the case,” but some people might not know what that means. This is why many sites, including ours, have a “glossary term” function, whereby a person can click on a highlighted word and see a definition. This function means that the content does not get bogged down with unnecessary words, but people can still get definitions to words they don’t understand.

Our current plain language challenge: Figure out how best to include a glossary in our site, while also not relying on it.

After all, a user might not realize that they can mouse over the word to see a definition.) Especially for words that have different meanings in the legal context, like “stay,” or “continue,” we cannot assume that a user would make use of a glossary term. So, we have to try and define words in the actual text of the information as well.

Despite the way it sounds, plain language is not so simple. It presents many questions and often there is no perfect answer. At the end of the day, legal topics and language are very complicated. But if you’ve ever read a statute, or a lengthy court opinion, you know that it isn’t hard to improve on the readability of the law! Hopefully, that’s where ILAO (and other sites like us) can make a difference.