Legal documents are well known for being long, dense and generally intractable. This is a fact of life; something everyone just seems to roll their eyes and accept. This does us more harm than good. Not only does it mean that most people are not interested or engaged with the law that binds them, but it presents legal professionals to be elitist and out of touch.
But there is hope – there is a growing movement within LawTech to make legal documents more accessible – to build documents and systems with which real life human beings can actually read and engage without investing £30k and two years of their life to studying. And the movement is gaining momentum, so much so that Legal Geek recently dedicated a whole day of their annual conference to it.
How it works
Its very simple. Just take a legal document and reformat it into something that can easily be comprehended by a real-life human being. Done properly, it won’t lose any of the legal enforceability of the document – all the necessary information is retained.
There are two key principles needed to legally redesign a document:
Simplify the language
Abandon the gratuitous, archaic nonsense that makes it so hard to divine meaning from a sentence.
The English language is a powerful tool that enables us to communicate quite concisely. If you’re doing it right, I shouldn’t need you give me three sentences to tell me what you’re going to tell me before you say it and then three more to explain what that meant; you should just be able to tell me.
Use words people understand with the meaning s commonly ascribed to them – its quite simple; don’t use jargon.
Words and Pictures
Use white space to make it easy to distinguish separate points. A numbered clause structure applied over a thirty page document is not enough to make this information clear.
Images – they say a picture’s worth a thousand words, whether you believe this or not, using an image or icon can help to quickly identify which words are relevant to the subject in which the reader is interested. This is sometimes looked down on, after all, picture books are for children, but what is written language but a string of images to which we have ascribed meaning?
Presenting information in a format that humans can easily process is not a new concept; there are whole industries built around this. Read a guide on writing a CV, building a blog, or giving a presentation, they’ll all say the same things. Its not rocket science. Law seems to think itself special, but it’s not – when creating documents targeted at non-experts, intended to inform, the same principles apply.
There are some places where this principle isn’t going to be useful. Where your document is going to be received and processed by lawyers who are prepared for receiving a standard format document, redesigning your entire document isn’t going to add much value. There are other legal tech advances being made to process legal documents, such as AI advances that will process documents automatically – abandoning traditional formats will make these technologies useless, at least for the short term. So, there’s no immediate need to redesign your entire practices’ precedent bank next week.
These facts don’t undermine the fundamental issue at play here.
We need to be more sensitive to our audiences. Legal design can offer us some serious advantages when interacting with non-lawyers. Thinks like terms and conditions and privacy policies – things that everyone deals with on a daily basis in their private lives. This is where we can add some real value with legal design.