Lawyers Prefer Plain English: Even Legal Experts Suffer from Legalese Fatigue

by François Dupont

According to recent research conducted by MIT, lawyers have shown a preference for simplified legal documents that are easier to comprehend, more appealing, and just as legally binding as traditional contracts.

Legal documents are infamous for their complexity, often causing frustration for individuals navigating contracts such as mortgage agreements. Surprisingly, the MIT study reveals that the lawyers responsible for creating these documents share the same sentiments.

Although lawyers demonstrate a better ability to interpret and remember information from legal documents compared to non-lawyers, they still find it easier to understand the same content when presented in “plain English.” Additionally, lawyers consistently rated contracts written in plain English as superior in quality, equally enforceable, and more likely to be signed by clients compared to those written in traditional “legalese.”

These findings suggest that while the use of convoluted legal writing is deeply ingrained, lawyers may be open to changing the way such documents are composed.

Edward Gibson, a senior author of the study and a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, states, “No matter how we asked the questions, the lawyers overwhelmingly always wanted plain English. People blame lawyers, but I don’t think it’s their fault. They would like to change it, too.”

The lead author of the study is Eric Martínez, an MIT graduate student and licensed attorney. The research was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and also involved Frank Mollica, a former visiting researcher at MIT and current lecturer in computational cognitive science at the University of Edinburgh.

This study challenges the argument that the complexity of legal information necessitates the use of legalese, suggesting that the prevalent use of archaic language may be a consequence of copying and editing existing enforceable contracts.

Analyzing legal language structure

Efforts to simplify legal documents date back to at least the 1970s when President Richard Nixon advocated for federal regulations to be written in “layman’s terms.” However, another study conducted by Martínez, Mollica, and Gibson (which has not yet been published) suggests that legal language has undergone minimal changes since that time.

Several years ago, the MIT team initiated their investigation into the structure and comprehensibility of legal language. The study began when Martínez, a student at Harvard Law School, joined Gibson’s lab as a research assistant and later pursued a PhD.

In a previously published study, Gibson, Martínez, and Mollica employed a text analysis tool to compare legal documents with various other types of texts, including newspapers, movie scripts, and academic papers. The researchers identified a prominent feature in legal documents that hindered readability: long definitions inserted within sentences, known as center-embedding.

Linguists have previously shown that center-embedding significantly impedes text comprehension. When the MIT team replaced center-embedded structures with simpler sentences and separately defined terms, individuals’ performance in understanding and recalling the meaning of legal texts notably improved.

Gibson explains, “For some reason, legal texts are filled with these center-embedded structures. In normal language production, it’s not natural to either write like that or to speak like that.”

These findings prompted Gibson and his colleagues to delve deeper into the reasons behind lawyers’ adoption of an impenetrable writing style. To investigate this, they conducted a similar study using lawyers as participants.

Before commencing the study, the researchers formulated five potential explanations for lawyers’ use of such legal text. The most plausible hypothesis, according to Gibson, was the “curse of knowledge.” This suggests that lawyers, being highly skilled in writing and reading legal documents, may not realize how challenging they are for others.

Other possible explanations included lawyers simply copying and pasting from existing templates, writing in legalese to

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about LegalSimplification

Q: What did the MIT study reveal about lawyers and legal documents?

A: The MIT study found that lawyers prefer simplified legal documents written in plain English. Despite their ability to interpret and recall information from legal documents better than non-lawyers, lawyers still find it easier to understand documents translated into plain English. They also rated plain English contracts as higher-quality, equally enforceable, and more likely to be signed by clients compared to documents written in legalese.

Q: Why do lawyers write legal documents in an impenetrable style?

A: The study explored several hypotheses for why lawyers use legalese. The researchers found that the most likely explanation is that lawyers tend to copy and paste from existing templates and edit them for specific situations. Over time, this practice has resulted in complex and convoluted contracts, often filled with center-embedded clauses. The aim may be to ensure the enforceability of these contracts based on previous examples.

Q: Are lawyers better at understanding legal documents compared to non-lawyers?

A: Yes, the study showed that lawyers perform better than non-lawyers in parsing and recalling information from legal documents. However, even lawyers struggle with legalese. When presented with documents written in plain English, both lawyers and non-lawyers demonstrated improved comprehension and recall. This suggests that legal language poses challenges for legal experts as well, and the use of plain language would benefit everyone.

Q: What are the implications of the study’s findings?

A: The study indicates that lawyers are open to changing the way legal documents are written and favor using plain English. The research challenges the notion that complex legal information necessitates the use of legalese. Simplifying legal language could enhance understanding and accessibility for both lawyers and non-lawyers. It suggests a shift towards clearer and more comprehensible legal documents, benefiting individuals navigating contracts and legal processes.

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jimmy23 June 22, 2023 - 2:46 am

wow! that mit study shows even lawyers prefer plain english for legal docs. thats a real surprise! i always thought they liked their fancy legalese. good to know they want change too!

wordnerd27 June 22, 2023 - 6:44 am

who knew lawyers would rate plain english contracts higher? it’s all about readability and understanding. let’s ditch the legalese and make contracts accessible to everyone. plain language ftw!

legally_minded June 22, 2023 - 10:35 am

interesting findings from MIT. maybe lawyers aren’t to blame for legalese after all. we just need to break free from old templates and embrace clearer writing. let’s simplify legal language and serve our clients better!

lawyer_gal June 22, 2023 - 10:56 am

this MIT study is fascinating! it’s like lawyers and nonlawyers both struggle with legalese. so plain english is better for everyone. maybe we can finally simplify legal documents and save some headaches!

bookworm85 June 22, 2023 - 1:35 pm

this study shows how important it is to communicate clearly, even in legal documents. plain english contracts are easier to understand and just as enforceable. let’s make the law more accessible for everyone!


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