Researchers at MIT have conducted a study that sheds light on the challenges posed by legal documents, known for their complex and hard-to-understand language. The study reveals that lawyers themselves prefer documents written in plain English over traditional legal jargon.
“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.” – Edward Gibson, MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and the senior author of the study.
The research team, led by MIT graduate student Eric Martínez, compared lawyers’ interpretation and recall of information from legal documents with those of non-lawyers. While lawyers showed better understanding of legal documents compared to non-lawyers, they still found it easier to comprehend the same information when translated into plain English. Lawyers rated plain English contracts as higher quality, more likely to be signed by clients, and equally enforceable as those written in traditional legalese.
Efforts have been made to simplify legal documents since the 1970s, but the study suggests that legal language has changed very little since then. The MIT team has been studying the structure and comprehensibility of legal language for several years. They found that long, center-embedded definitions in sentences are a significant obstacle to understanding legal texts. Replacing these complex structures with more straightforward sentences significantly improved comprehension and recall.
The researchers explored possible reasons why lawyers use such impenetrable language. One hypothesis, known as the “curse of knowledge,” suggests that lawyers, being proficient in legal writing, underestimate the difficulty for others. However, the study showed that lawyers faced similar challenges in recalling information from legal documents as non-lawyers did.
The study involved over 100 lawyers from various law schools and firms. Lawyers performed comprehension tasks, and their recall rates improved when presented with plain English versions of legal texts. In a separate experiment, lawyers also rated plain English documents as higher quality, more likely to be agreed upon by clients, and equally enforceable as traditional legal documents.
The findings indicate that lawyers, like non-lawyers, find legal language difficult to comprehend. The results challenge the assumption that lawyers prefer complex language due to their expertise. Instead, lawyers showed a clear preference for plain English documents.
The researchers believe that the widespread use of copy and paste practices, where lawyers reuse existing contracts and add amendments, may have contributed to the complexity of legal language over time. They are currently investigating this aspect further.
The study highlights the need to reconsider legal document writing practices to make them more accessible and understandable to both lawyers and non-lawyers. The preference for plain English among lawyers suggests that they are open to changing the way legal documents are written, which could lead to improved comprehension and more effective communication.