5 Tips for Writing Readable Legal Content

how to make legal documents readable

One of the paradoxes of legal documents is that they’re rarely written to be understood by the people they impact most. Instead they’re mostly written by lawyers for lawyers. This approach may be great for reducing liability, but it’s not so good at telling non-lawyers what they’re getting into (and, no, that shouldn’t be the point).

Fifty percent of U.S. adults can’t read a book written at an eighth-grade level, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This is just one of the reasons you should write every communication, including legal content, with your audience and their reading level in mind. Because when customers know what you’re saying, they’re more likely to trust you and keep coming back. Here are five tips to help you make legal content more user friendly.

Start fresh

Those privacy policy examples or terms and conditions templates that worked in the past probably didn’t work for customers.

Instead of using ‘find and replace’ on an ancient, puffed-up template, open a new document. Keep the old version handy as reference, but use this as an opportunity to update and improve it. Because while customers may not need a reinvented wheel, they’re probably interested in one with a smoother ride.

Unpack it

The goal of legal copy should be to share complex concepts in a way your audience can understand. This means turning 10-dollar words into content non-lawyers can decipher (without having to reread sentences three or four times).

While you break down complex language, be sure to delete Latin terms and synonym salads. No one wants to slog through phrases like ‘true and correct’ (just one of those words is plenty) or search for a definition of ‘de facto’ (‘in fact’ is more concise and as accurate) just to find out how you’re sharing their data.

Keep it short

Sometimes breaking down complicated ideas results in long sentences and even longer paragraphs. This is because definitions are generally longer than the words they clarify.

An easy way to avoid turning unpacked content into long, scary, run-on sentences is to make sure each focuses on a single idea. This may require using two lines of copy to explain a topic. However, users likely won’t struggle to read two sentences if both feel digestible.

Make it active

Be clear who’s responsible for what. The best way to do that is with active language. Passive constructions tend to be vague and can make sentences longer.

Active language puts a clear idea in your customer’s mind about who is doing what. There may be times, however, when you want to be less clear about who will do or has done something, particularly if it runs the risk of sounding accusatory.

Ask the experts

Start and end with getting your legal team on board. While they’re likely familiar with legal community efforts to simplify content, you’ll still want their buy in before you start rewriting their documents. And you’ll want to make sure they have opportunities to weigh in along the way. Simplified or not, this content still needs to protect your organization.

Policies, T&Cs, and other legal content doesn’t have to be long-winded or intimidating. Take it from the U.S. government, which says, “Plain language makes it easier for the public to read, understand, and use” communications. Some companies are even starting to write contracts with accessible language. These entities are proving it’s possible to communicate complex ideas in an accurate, transparent way. All it takes is a commitment to give customers readable, engaging content, even when it’s buried at the bottom of your website.

ABOUT James Scott

For more than 20 years, James has helped global brands get results with award-winning copy. As a writer and creative lead, he’s worked with clients in a broad range of industries, from technology and pharma to retail and luxury services. Though he's also an attorney, James realized early in his legal career that he preferred crafting websites and ads far more than writing legal complaints and briefs. When he’s not developing blog posts, editorial content, or ad slogans, he spends his time writing short stories and perfecting his voiceover talent.