Plain language in law, designed for modern times

By Yves Faguy September 14, 201814 September 2018

Plain language in law, designed for modern times

From October 25 to 27, Clarity will hold its international conference in Montréal. Clarity is an international professional network whose mission is to promote the use of plain legal language. To give us some background, Guillaume Rondeau, chief plain language specialist at Éducaloi, one of Clarity’s partners, spoke with CBA National to discuss the evolution of plain and effective legal language.

CBA National: The theme of the Montreal conference is “Plain Language in Modern Times.” Why was this theme chosen?

Guillaume Rondeau: What we know in English as “plain language” is mostly referred to as “langage clair” (clear language) in French, although that expression is slowly giving way to “communication claire” (clear communication), and this is an important distinction. When you say clear language, you’re putting a lot of emphasis on language itself—on the words. Popular understanding has it that the problem with law and legal communications is the legal jargon and how inaccessible it is to laypeople. But that obscures the other issues. And so, expertise has evolved over time. Rather than talking about just clear language, we examine the clear communication of law and legal matters. This takes into account communication as a whole. We also look more closely at other issues. So yes, terminology is one thing, but we also need to think about structuring and arranging information in logical ways, and about the way we design information: that is, the graphical presentation of information. Some fonts are easier to read than others. Font size and heading hierarchy are worth looking into. Design refers to images, tables, graphics. Thinking of plain language as clear communication really pushes the boundaries of our expertise.

N: So how should a lawyer approach this?

GR: The new approach to effective legal communication requires asking yourself: “What do I want to say? And, most importantly, why am I going to say it?” It’s crucial that I design my communication from the ground up with my target audience in mind. So I need to ask myself “Why would this audience read the information I’m going to give it?” And if I’m able to explain to any given member of my target audience why the information I’m communicating is relevant, what are they going to do with that information? In my communication, is there a way for me to help them use the information I’m putting out there? It’s all about tailoring our message to the end user, the ultimate recipient. You hear a lot about terms like “design thinking” and “user-centred communication,” and that’s what they mean: focusing our communication efforts on the recipient. And honestly, that requires a very big, difficult shift in mindset.

N: All the more reason to wonder how lawyers can take the necessary steps to change—by surrounding themselves with professionals with the expertise they need, for example?

GR: I would say that it starts with becoming aware of the issue and wanting to get your message across. Fundamentally, if the lawyer is not aware of what they need to change and doesn’t have any motivation to change the way they communicate, it won’t do any good. Then, there’s plenty of myths to debunk. One of the big ones is that simplifying law or its communication will result in the loss of legal rigour. The challenge is to prove to lawyers that it’s possible to simplify their contract, their memo and their legal advice and still maintain this rigour. A text that’s written in plain language, simplified efficiently, can be assembled even more rigorously than a purely legal text. Another myth that needs deconstructing is that simplifying a legal communication tool is too time consuming. The underlying mistake here is thinking that communicating clearly involves adding a step to your communications when in fact, it’s just carrying out the same steps differently. It’s approaching the process in another way, which is of course not going to happen overnight. But little by little, you can change the way you do things, and it’ll be even easier in the end. There are a multitude of different aspects you can work on to improve your communication. And it just so happens that the Montréal conference in October will bring together professionals from all around the world with different fields of expertise: jurists, people working in communication, journalists and more, and all these aspects will be on the table.

N: And what is significant about the choice of Montreal as a host city for this conference?

GR: The particularly interesting thing is that it will be an opportunity to really experience bijuralism and bilingualism through legal communication. The conference will play host to participants and speakers who work in civil law and common law, so there will be an interesting element of sharing expertise. It will also be the first time an international Clarity conference has been held in French and English—they’re usually English-only events. We want about 50% of the workshops to be in French and 50% in English. We also have speakers coming from Scandinavia, Africa, Australia and all sorts of different places. They can talk about the particularities of their languages and how they managed to simplify law according to their unique linguistic and cultural characteristics. So I expect this will be quite the fascinating melting pot.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication.

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