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Pleading for the Public: How Readable Is Your Writing?

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By George Khoury, Esq. on July 21, 2017 2:00 PM

When drafting a pleading, most practitioners focus on proving their case to a judge, and never give a second thought about the general public as an audience. This may seem like the right strategy, but there are certainly some advantages to simplifying your legal writing so that the general public can understand your case, too.

For starters, judges might not be as smart as you think you are. If you are unsure about the definition of a word, they might be as well. And if you're unsure about a word you're using, the general public, with its 8th grade reading level, will more likely than not be confused. Focusing on readability is good, not just for the public, but also for your judge.

Readability 101: Using Plain Language

Unless there is a specific requirement to use specific legal phrases in a complaint, avoiding legalese and jargon is advisable. Avoiding excessive jargon is nearly a requirement.

When it comes to tone, you should assume a reader of your pleading will know the English language terminology of the legal profession, but Latin, and non-English phrases, should be avoided. While the public might not fully grasp the significance of the necessary legal terms, there are other ways to make your pleading more public-friendly.

Write an Easy to Understand Introduction

As a lawyer, you were trained to state the obvious, element by element. To make your pleading more readable, include an introduction that summarizes your case in a sentence or two, and explains the purpose of the pleading. In a complaint, you can include a more detailed summary, as you won't be under the same page limit constraint as a motion, opposition, or reply. Also, if the media gets their hands on your complaint, an introduction could prevent them from misinterpreting allegations, as well as provide a few sentences that are easy to quote.

Judge's often like introductions as it gives them the gist of a pleading without having to spend an hour reading it before delegating your case to the clerk best suited to the matter. According to Lawyerist, a good intro does three things: rouses the judge's interest, gives the judge an overview, then tells the judge what to do.

Explain Technical Details

If your case depends on an understanding of technical facts, like why water found in jet fuel is a really big deal, you should explain it clearly and as simply as possible. You may have become a jet fuel expert before filing your case, but it's unlikely your judge or anyone other than a pilot or aviation enthusiast will have the baseline knowledge you acquired while preparing.

Practice tip: Asking a non-legal professional, or even a high school student, to read (not proof-read or edit) your pleading, then tell you what it's about, is a good way to find out where you fall on the spectrum of lawyers that know how to write for the general public.

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