Trust me, I’m a lawyer

‘Trust’ and ‘lawyer’ are not words you would automatically put together, but the incomprehensibility of legal language may leave you no choice. Worryingly, while you would expect consumers to trust lawyers a lot less than they do nurses, doctors or teachers they also trust lawyers less than they used to.

It probably isn’t too hard to work out why this lack of trust seems endemic.  Recent research by the Legal Ombudsman suggests that consumers who try to complain to law firms feel ‘intimidated by jargon’.  Researchers found examples of language that consumers found difficult to understand and which came across as ‘confrontational and threatening’.  I can’t imagine they had to look very hard.

How can this be?  It must be an essential skill for anyone entering the profession to be able to communicate using precise and clear language, surely law students are taught how to do it?  Isn’t being able to convey complex (or not) legal principles to your average lay person part of the job?

Apparently not.  And amazingly, it seems it’s all our fault.  Some lawyers think if consumers can’t understand legal jargon then we ‘should have paid more attention in English lessons or recognise [our] failings and go out and buy a dictionary’.  Which could be a fair point except that lawyers deliberately use legal jargon to make themselves sound more important than they really are.

This is not a crime unique to lawyers, all professions and organisations have their own jargon unintelligible to outsiders, but most of them manage to tone it down to some extent when dealing with the uninitiated.  For example, doctors don’t avoid medical terms when they talk to patients, but they do explain them (well, the good ones do).

Lawyers, and others, use jargon to separate themselves from everyone else and maintain their professional status in the eyes of the general public.  If what they do is too easy to understand people will start to question what they’re paying for.  At least that’s what I suspect lawyers think.

I would argue the contrary.  For a start, lawyers would probably get fewer complaints if they ditched the jargon because consumers would understand what was going on.  It would also prove they really know what they are talking about – it’s all too easy to mask your lack of knowledge by chucking in a few choice long, Latin-sounding words. 

It is not a new problem.  In 1817 Thomas Jefferson complained about the ‘taste of my brother lawyers’ who, he said, had an affinity for ‘making every other word a “said” or “aforesaid” and saying everything over two or three times so as that nobody but we of the craft can untwist the diction’.  Exactly.

Professor Richard Wydick, author of Plain English for Lawyers, echoes this sentiment: ‘We lawyers cannot write plain English.  We use eight words to say what could be said in two.  We use arcane phrases to express commonplace ideas.  Seeking to be precise, we become redundant.  Seeking to be cautious, we become verbose’.

There are reasons for this, what could be regarded as, separate ‘sublanguage’.  The habit of using two or three words where one might do is because once upon a time English law was bilingual.  In the Renaissance, judges and lawyers were supposed to conduct business in French, but their clients and everyone else spoke English.  To ensure everyone would understand what they were going on about lawyers started using both English and French words.  Unfortunately, the terms have stayed united.

For example ‘last will and testament’ could just be ‘last will’ as ‘testament’ is the French synonym for ‘will’.  Arguably it should even be shortened to ‘will’ since every will is meant to be the last one.  Similarly, ‘devise and bequeath’ is the joining of the French ‘devise’ meaning a testamentary gift and the English  ‘and bequeath’. 

Other examples if you’re interested (and who could blame you if you weren’t) are ‘breaking and entering’, ‘fit and proper’, ‘goods and chattels’ and ‘right, title and interest’.  For fun you can work out for yourself the French derivatives (answers at the bottom of the post).

All those Latin-sounding words that lawyers brandish with such evident satisfaction also once served a purpose.  Back in the olden days they helped to show that a testimony or document had legal effect.  More to the point, English and French were considered to be unfit and vulgar tongues, so even then lawyers were attempting to mark themselves out as special.

King Edward III, Cromwell and Parliament have all tried to outlaw the use of Latin in the law because they believed ‘many and great mischiefs do frequently happen to the subjects of this kingdom from the proceedings in courts of justice being in an unknown language’. 

The lawyers, as you can imagine, disagreed.  As one academic has put it: ‘the survival of Latin tags in our legal system is primarily designed to give mystery and majesty to otherwise ordinary mortals and their fallible proceedings, as is the case with wigs and robes’.  And so we have today’s mishmash. 

If you want to sound like a lawyer, use long words like they do.  Or rather, if you find yourself wanting to appear as one of the said lawyers, employ elongated expressions as do the aforementioned legal representatives.  Instead of writing ‘I received your letter’, try ‘I am in receipt of your correspondence’.

My favourite example of this verbiage was a satire written in 1835 by Arthur Symonds but which could equally apply today.  He suggested the phrase ‘I give you that orange’ could be rendered as:

I give you all and singular, my estate and interest, right, title, claim and advantage of and in that orange, with all its rind, skin, juice, pulp and pips, and all right and advantage therein, with full power to bite, cut, suck, and otherwise eat the same, or give the same away as fully and effectually as I the said A.B. am now entitled to bite, cut, suck, or otherwise eat the same orange, or give the same away, with or without its rind, skin, juice, pulp, and pips, anything hereinbefore, or hereinafter, or in any other deed, or deeds, instrument or instruments of what nature or kind soever, to the contrary in any wise, notwithstanding.

Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t make it right.  Plain language, rather than legalese, empowers your clients to understand the service they are getting and builds their trust.  And by not blaming them for not understanding your impenetrable language you will probably get fewer complaints.  If you’ll excuse the expression, sounds like a no brainer to me.

Answers: entering, proper, chattels, interest

Posted in: Consumer rights

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