Content and legal
So here’s the challenge. Lawyers like precise, clear legal terms. They have years of legal training, specialist knowledge, skills and expertise. So how can they adapt this knowledge to write for a wider, lay audience?
Lawyers don’t want to be told that words like ‘averred’, ‘demurred’, ‘notwithstanding’ and ‘hereinafter’ have little resonance with most lay people. They use this language because it is precise and has a clear legal definition. The understandable perception is that having to define legal terminology and use plain English creates unnecessarily lengthy explanations, requires far greater use of words and will be time consuming.
Opening up language gives power
In my experience, this isn’t actually the case. Simplifying and condensing complex terminology and concepts can be empowering and engaging. Clarity is crucial. It might require an initial investment of time and resource but this will reap dividends further down the line. Once you start using the same language your customers will use to access your services. Drafting content that includes the search terms your potential audience type into Google. Then you will be making yourself far more accessible. In short, it helps reach far wider audiences.
I’m a lawyer and a content design convert
In 2014, I joined a small legal charity Just for Kids Law to help improve criminal legal representation for children. We established the Youth Justice Legal Centre because all children deserve to be represented by child specialist criminal lawyers. Our first challenge was how to establish the recognition that criminal lawyers needed specialist knowledge and skills to represent children. Our second challenge was how to teach lawyers what they didn’t realise they didn’t know.
Unlocking the potential by providing a time saving resource
Our ambition was to create a website that would be a reliable and trusted source of legal information on youth justice law. We needed to be accurate and up to date. We also needed to ensure content was written accessibly, so that time-poor lawyers could quickly find the information they needed. Then, once we had a regular following, we could start to use the website for transformative legal education. Directing our readers to additional information that would be relevant and helpful but that lawyers didn’t realise they didn’t know.
The website launched in 2015, and in just 4 years we had an online legal resource with 8,000 regular web visitors and over 40,000 page views per month.
Kate’s top five tips for dealing with lawyers
Clarity and precision
Lawyers are trained to be precise, to show attention to detail. Broad assertions will be resisted. But there is common ground. Simplifying language takes time and user research but it can result in greater clarity.
The success of a legal website is to establish a clear house style. Agree preferred language for common terminology. Where the concepts are complex try providing an initial simple explanation dictionary-style definition then a subsequent sentence or paragraph for more detailed explanation. Where relevant, use strategies such as linking readers to originating legislation or case law. Brackets can also be useful to provide an explanation or definition of more complex terms.
We are all time-poor
Customers, whether they are lawyers, legal consumers or retail customers all have one thing in common. They are time poor and they are overloaded with information. Websites provide a unique opportunity to provide information in a user-friendly format that can be nuanced and personalised.
Helping lawyers understand their own beahviours, how they access information online will also help bring about the desired culture change, ow often do you find yourself ‘googling’ the answer to something? Why? Because invariably the answer will be available in simple, straightforward language.
Less is more
The reality is that customers and website visitors do not read ‘the small print’. How often have you ticked the box to say you’ve read the terms and conditions without reading them at all. This has a consequential reputational risk that companies and businesses may be perceived negatively, as seeking to avoid liability, which in turn has a reputational risk. If you want to convey information, that you know your customers will read – keep it simple and keep it short.
Presentation of information is critical
Our user research found that lawyers were instinctively more comfortable when presented with information in a format that looked familiar. It looked like it was written for lawyers.
So, even if you are simplifying language and content. Keeping the presentation more formal might be important.
Letting go is tough
I think the biggest challenge for lawyers is allowing an external professional to become involved in drafting their content. This is threatening and a loss of control, and understandable when ultimately the buck stops with them.
Allowing and ensuring a lawyer has the final sign off may be the key to success. And finally…. It may be a slow process. Don’t expect converts overnight. There will be resistance. Expect it.
Kate Aubrey-Johnson is a barrister and mediator at Garden Court Chambers.
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