clear-legal-writingOne of the biggest problems with The Law is that it does not make much sense without a translator. This is why so many clients ask lawyers to translate legalese into plain English.

This can be a serious problem. For example, I spent the morning in court yesterday, watching debt collectors get bench warrants on orders to show cause. The reason none of the debtors showed up was because they did not know what “order to show cause” and “contempt” mean. Nobody translated those words into “show up or you will get arrested.” If someone had, most of those debtors would have showed up, and on time.

It takes longer for human brains to process words like “plaintiff” and “contempt” into “Mr. Jones” and “jail time.” That goes for Latin words, five-syllable words, and any other words that require mental translation.

If you want to be understood, do not force your listeners (or readers) to translate. Instead, say what you mean, and be understood.

(photo: ScrappyShackLori)


  1. Avatar Anglo-Thai Legal says:

    In defence of the legists, most advocates are very clear and concise during their appearances in court; unlike most witnesses. Law is an art – to try and simplify it is like creating a ‘Surgery for Dummies’ manual.

    As an aside, the reason that the debtors failed to attend court on 26.8.09 was probably because they were liable for an outstanding amount of money which they could not satisfy on judgment. Does not take a genius to realise you owe someone money!

  2. Sam Glover Sam Glover says:

    What are legists? You make my point for me.

    In reply to your aside, all the debts were for less than $4,000. One was for about $380.

  3. Avatar Rita K says:

    This is why I wrote a guide on Debt Collection Lawsuits and just did a podcast on how to answer a debt collection lawsuit, which will be posted soon. I get library users who come in and do not understand that a lawsuit needs to be answered! Otherwise the Plaintiff (the person or company suing) will get a default judgment (order to get money) against the defendant (the person asking me that question.)

  4. Avatar Joe Strummer says:

    I was in court this week where a pro se criminal defendent with stand-by counsel was being asked by the judge whether he wanted to put on a defense, and then told about all the consequences of that.

    Suffice to say that phrases like “you would be precluded” and “case in chief” and “if you testify you would be waiving your 5th amendment rights” were basically nonsense to the defendant.

    And the defendant kept nodding along, not wanting, I think, to appear stupid to the court.

  5. Avatar Peter Pitorri says:

    Okay, John Grisham, you cannot just leave it there…. So is this fellow going to trial? Is he pleading himself out? Is he defending a felony for which conviction his life or liberty would be at stake? Hmmmm?

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