Putting a face to the “plain language” debate

Lawyers should be servants. This is never easy. In fact, it’s usually pretty hard. The billed hour and the adversarial system and the looming cloud of malpractice does not naturally encourage us to be “others-centered.” We have to serve our clients, but we also have to serve the courts and, in some attenuated way, we have to serve justice. (I trust the conflicts of interest there are not lost on the reader.) And then we have to make living. No wonder the lawyer-servant is so rare.


I was reminded this week in a poignant way that one way to serve people is by drafting documents in plain language. You know, so the people who paid you (and for whom the documents were drafted) can actually make use of them. Yes, I know—it’s a radical idea. The debate over plain language is not a purely academic question, after all.

Prologue: One benefit of doing all this internet stuff is that people can actually find me—on the internet. Often these are the kind of people who don’t know anywhere else to look but the google. These are folks who don’t know a lawyer or don’t know anyone to ask. I am thankful for these people because they help me remember what it’s like to be on the other side, where the law is (unfortunately) shrouded in mystery.

On to the poignant experience: A woman found me on the internet this week and called to ask a question. She was wondering whether her new mother-in-law could take her daughter on vacation. (She was divorced and remarried and has custody of the daughter.)

The only way to answer the question, of course, was to look at the divorce decree and see if it addressed the situation. So, I asked her if she had a copy of it, to which she replied that she did. I asked her if it said anything about vacations or out-of-state trips.

Her reply: “I don’t know because I can’t read it. I only read on a fourth-grade reading level, and I don’t understand the words.”

Let that sink in.

After seeing a copy of the decree, I could understand her plight. It was full of nonsense—useless recitations, tired Latinisms, recycled garbage from a thousand decrees before. It was unclear on most of the things that matter and bulging at the seams with words that served no purpose. I’m sure the lawyer who drafted it felt very, very smart when he filed it. I hope so, anyway; he surely could not have walked away from the experience with the conviction that he was an effective lawyer.

If someone can’t read, that is one thing. But someone with a fourth-grade reading level should be able to read their divorce decree and understand it. (If not, I don’t think it’s a legally effective decree.  The people who need to rely on it don’t know what in the heck to do with it.) Fourth-graders, after all, can read things like Johnny Tremain, Beverly Cleary, and Judy Blume.

If someone can explain the dangers of silversmithing during the Revolutionary War to a fourth-grader, surely it’s reasonable that I can tell people where there stuff goes and what to do with their kids in an understandable way.