Legal documents are notorious for being difficult to understand, causing frustration for anyone who has encountered them.
Surprisingly, a recent study from MIT reveals that lawyers themselves don’t particularly like these documents either.
The research suggests that lawyers find it easier to interpret and recall information from legal documents translated into “plain English.”
They also rated plain English contracts as higher in quality, more likely to be signed, and equally enforceable compared to those written in complex legal language. This discovery indicates that lawyers may be open to changing the way legal documents are written.
For decades, efforts have been made to simplify legal documents, but a study conducted by MIT shows that legal language has changed very little over the years.
MIT researchers set out to understand the structure and comprehensibility of legal language by analyzing its characteristics.
They discovered that long definitions inserted within sentences, known as center-embedding, make legal texts considerably harder to understand. These complex structures are not natural in everyday language and pose a challenge for readers.
To investigate why lawyers produce such impenetrable legal texts, the MIT team conducted a study using lawyers as participants.
They recruited over 100 lawyers from various law schools and firms and asked them to perform comprehension tasks similar to those done by non-lawyers in a previous study.
The results showed that lawyers performed better at understanding and recalling information from legal documents, but they too found it easier to comprehend the same information when presented in plain English.
This suggests that legal language presents a barrier even for lawyers and challenges the assumption that lawyers are equally adept at recalling both styles of information.
In a subsequent set of experiments, the researchers sought to understand lawyers’ attitudes toward legal documents and simplified versions of those documents. Surprisingly, lawyers rated plain English documents as higher in quality than the original legal documents.
They were more willing to sign such documents and believed their clients would be more likely to agree to the terms. Additionally, lawyers expressed a preference for hiring the individuals who wrote the plain English versions.
These findings contradicted several explanations the researchers considered, leaving the possibility that lawyers may be copying and pasting from existing contracts as the main reason for the complex legal language.
The study’s findings indicate that lawyers, like others, prefer plain English when it comes to legal documents.
This suggests an openness to change within the legal profession. Simplifying legal language would benefit both lawyers and non-lawyers, as legalese proves challenging for all parties involved.
The researchers hypothesize that the complexity may have emerged due to the practice of amending existing contracts with center-embedded clauses over time. They are currently investigating this further to gain a deeper understanding.
The MIT study reveals an interesting perspective on legal language—the lawyers who produce these documents also prefer plain English.
This discovery challenges the belief that lawyers are immune to the difficulties posed by complex legal texts.
By understanding the preference for plain English and the challenges of legal language, there is potential for a positive shift in the way legal documents are written.
Simplifying legal language would make these documents more accessible to all, enhancing comprehension and ensuring fairness in legal matters.