Does your business lawyer communicate in plain English? If not, it’s costing you money.

In our post Top 5 Things Your Business Lawyer Should Do For You, we wrote that your business lawyer should add value. One way to add value is to de-mystify and simplify things for you. This is the bedrock of effective communication between lawyer and client. 

In fact, effective communication is essential to the success of any enterprise. Ineffective communication leads to confusion and mistakes. Confusion and mistakes equal waste. Waste costs money. [1]

If your lawyer isn’t breaking it down, communicating in simple language, then your lawyer isn’t communicating effectively. It’s costing you, and we can prove it.  

The Built-In Value of Plain Language

Consider this golden snippet from the American Heritage Book of English Usage (Houghton and Mifflin 1996):

Most of us are busy and impatient people. We hate to wait. Using too many words is like asking people to stand in line until you get around to the point. It is irritating, which hardly helps when you are trying to show that you know what you're talking about. What is worse, using too many words often makes it difficult to understand what is being said. It forces a reader to work hard to figure out what is going on, and in many cases the reader may simply decide it is not worth the effort. Another side effect of verbosity is the tendency to sound overblown, pompous, and evasive. What better way to turn off a reader?

This is also good business advice. Time is money. You’re writing to inform or persuade. Customers and prospects crave clarity and certainty. Clear writing is the emblem of clear thinking. It shows that you’ve put the customer’s needs first. 

These days, the inherent value of clarity is amplified. Given the surge of smart phones and social media, more and more people write to each other (even though people hate to write!) than actually talk to each other. A content explosion is underway in a global marketplace that contains millions of people communicating instantaneously—many of them using English as a second language.

That’s millions of people. With short attention spans. Under pressure to get things done.

This phenomenon has changed how business is conducted. More than ever, we’re under pressure to communicate instantly and effectively. There’s a premium on getting to the point.

Anything else wastes time and costs money. 

What Lawyers Are Afraid Of

Traditionally, lawyers have been paid handsomely (and by the hour) to decipher and communicate in arcane, Latin-sounding language that covers every eventuality, however impractical or remote. To attract clients, lawyers need to appear smart. To maximize billings and revenue, they have a financial incentive to keep things gauzy and mysterious so their clients continue to need them.

As a result, lawyers fear the simple. They’re afraid that plain language isn’t detailed enough, that they’ll miss something. They’re afraid that shooting straight will take bread off their table.

This fear is rampant in legal communications. For example:

  • A few months back, we were negotiating an Agreement of Sale with a partner in a large New York law firm. We had written the following clause: “If the results of the Inspections are not satisfactory to the Buyer, the Buyer will have the right to cancel this Agreement.”

The New York lawyer revised it to read this way: “If the results of the Inspections are not satisfactory to the Buyer for any reason, in its sole discretion, or if Buyer elects for any reason whatsoever, or for no reason, the Buyer will have the right to cancel this Agreement.”

When challenged to explain how the second version changed the meaning of the first, he replied: “I’ve been writing this way for 20 years.”

  •  A second-year lawyer told us that in order to analyze a contract, she first had to translate it into simple English. Then, after drafting proposed plain language revisions, the senior partner ordered her to re-write them into legalese so that she would “sound like a lawyer.”

In the second example, four steps were involved:

  1. Reading.
  2. Translating from legal speak into English.
  3. Revising.
  4. Translating from English back into legal speak.

Instead of two steps:

  1. Reading.
  2. Revising.

For the client, this approach means paying a lawyer’s hourly rate for two unnecessary steps. (Or, for the firm, writing off excessive time that can’t be billed.) Either way, wasted effort, wasted time, wasted money.

And when the lawyer on the other side, like our New York colleague, works the same old wasteful way, the actual cost of the deal to the clients on both sides of the deal is unnecessarily high. Both clients complain about their bills, try to negotiate them down, and trade lawyer jokes.

A Simple Truth about the Value of Simplicity

For the business law client, this post offers a simple equation, and a simple truth.

Lawyer Communications 101

Unclear communication = Wasted time = Wasted money

There is simply no value, and no craft, in making the complex sound complex. The business lawyer’s craft lies in de-mystifying the complex.

That’s how to deliver value to the client.


[1] The effective communication ideas in this post are consistent with — in fact, a component of — well-recognized enterprise performance and improvement principles, such as Lean, Six Sigma, and Crew Resource Management. For example, see Marshall, David, Crew Resource Management: From Patient Safety to High Reliability, 2009, Parts 3 and 4.

Sources and Further Reading:

Lines of Communication, LLC. Excerpted extensively and used with permission.
Advanced Legal Writing and Editing, Bryan A. Garner, LawProse Inc. (Revised Edition, 2002).