Plain Language & Legal Design

I have been reading through articles documenting how ‘Plain Language’ came to be a standard by which legal communications are judged — and which courts, firms, and companies are willing to invest money and time in. From my limited research, I’ve been able to trace the rise of ‘Plain Language’ as a standard from the late 1970s through the early 1980s, when it became much discussed in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia-New Zealand. Government commissions began to investigate what Plain Language would look like in practice, how much it would offer to the end user of legal documents, and if it was worth investing in.

The conclusion seems to have been a resounding ‘yes’, as Plain Language became a dominant metric against which legal writing, explanations, outreach, and work product is judged. President Clinton mandated that federal agencies author their work using Plain Language techniques. Courts, self-help centers & legal aid groups hire plain language companies to ensure the text they release out to the public meets the Plain Language standard. And firms and corporations put an emphasis on how they offer clarity to their users, with a commitment to Plain Language communications.

Plain language is more than just what words you use to communicate — it is the way in which you compose your sentences, and the tone and voice your communication. It is about making your text more user-friendly by adopting a consciousness of who your target audience is, thinking of how they would best understand what you’re trying to get across, and ensuring that you speak and write in the most direct way to get your point across to this audience in the most succinct yet clear way.

This emphasis on usability is where there is a strong link between the Plain Language standard, and the legal design work that I have been so focused on as late. What I see is that to make a communication user-friendly & usable, we must think of more than just the language we use. It is more than vocabulary choice, sentence structure, tone, and voice.

Plain Language to Legal Design standards by margaret Hagan

Designing for usability of legal communications means thinking of all of the other factors that affect (and potentially enhance) an audience’s comprehension of a communication. Beyond just Plain Language, we must also focus on:

  • Composition of the text on the page: how is it laid out? how many characters go across the line? how is it structured, indented, boxed, and otherwise made visually comprehensible?
  • Interactivity: is the communication staged? can a user get a quickly glanceable version, and then dig selectively into the text for more detailed explanations? Can we use digital tools to make the communication more engaging, customizable, and lively?
  • Visuals: are graphics, illustrations, and symbols used to enhance the user’s understanding? is there a way to shorten the amount of text we present, or to better show priorities and warnings within the text through the use of graphics? Is there a way to ground the text in more context & situational understanding by showing illustrations or photographs?
  • Service flows; what is the role of this communication in a larger service experience of the end user?

Legal Design work could be as powerful as the Plain Language standard has been. My goal is to get more legal organizations invested in making their communications as understandable & engaging as they can. This is both for the sake of the lay person consumer, but also for other lawyers and professionals. Better designed information can enhance the experience of even the most educated person, who is not intimidated by legalese — they don’t necessarily want to read through badly designed legal communications either.

Reading through the descriptions of how Plain Language has gone from movement to standard, I’m inspired to think how we can set more standards, guidelines, and best practices for how legal professionals communicate. I want to see legal orgs invested not just in Plain Language, but in Wholly Better Designed work product — that is Visually Composed, Interactive, Illustrated, and Service-oriented. We need more than just improved language to really make legal communications connect with lay people.

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