Thus setting a personal record for longest blog post title….
Donald Johnston has published a great post at Slaw with the self-explanatory title, “Drafting a EULA Using Only the 1000 Most Common Words in American English.” Don references a terrific online tool, “The Up-goer Five Text Editor,” which allows you to use only the one thousand most frequently appearing words in the English language.
Using this site, Don wrote an end-user software licence agreement — normally, one of the most opaque and mystifying legal documents the world has ever seen. The Up-goer version of the EULA takes a little getting used to, and sometimes suffers from the clunky structure inherited from the original document. But as a means of communicating what you actually want to say, in order that your intent is understood and your rules for using your software are followed, it is far more effective than the standard version.
So here’s an exercise for you: try to write a practice description for your website using only the 1,000 most common words in English. Your practice description is arguably the most important page on your site — it’s where potential clients come to find out whether you can help them. But many such descriptions are written in long-winded, jargony, off-putting legalese. Trying to sound sophisticated, many lawyers instead come across as boring, pompous, or unintelligible. It’s worth trying something different.
Here’s an example for your consideration: I’ve drafted a generic four-paragraph description for a family law practice. This turned out to be a lot more challenging than I had anticipated. For instance, you can’t use the words “marriage,” “divorce,” “wife,” “husband,” “support,” “custody,” “court,” “judge,” “government,” or even “legal” or “law!”
How are you supposed to describe a law practice without these words, let alone terms like “division of property” or “pension valuation”? That’s the whole point: the exercise forces you to find simpler, plainer ways of saying what you need to say. Here’s my attempt (and okay, I cheated a little — I had to use “marriage”):
I help people fix things that have gone wrong in their lives. Most often, I help people who used to be married but who aren’t anymore. This is almost always hard for these people and their children, and I try to help them feel a little better. But my most important job is to help them with all the stuff that they have to go through because they’re not married anymore.
When a marriage is over, each person who was in the marriage has to do some things. They have to fill out a lot of papers, so that everyone knows the marriage is over. Each person who was in the marriage will take half of all the things the two people owned together — either the things themselves, or money to pay for the things. One person might have to give the other person money every month to help that person live his or her life.
If there are children of the marriage, one person may live with the children, and the other person will give that person money to help the children live their lives. The person who does not live with the children may be able to visit the children every two weeks or every month, or to have the children live with them at those times.
All of these things, and many more, can be hard to do and can take up a lot of time. My job is to help people do all these things, so that they don’t have to do it all themselves. If you think I could help you, please call me, so that we can plan to meet and talk about what’s going on with you. You don’t have to pay any money to speak with me for the first half an hour.
Not exactly Tolstoy, is it? And at times, it does come across as patronizing, as if you’re speaking to a child — your clients’ vocabulary will certainly contain more than 1,000 words. I doubt I would paste this directly into my firm’s practice description page.
But nonetheless, there’s an appealing directness about this draft, both in terms of the content of the message as well as its emotional connection. Please call me, so that I can help you — many clients are seeking exactly that level of forthright personal engagement from their legal adviser. If the text editor makes you draft something like this, don’t be afraid of it.
I think you should try writing a simple, 1,000-most-common-words version of your practice description, and use it as a template for your final version. Strive to add as few “illegal” words as possible — only those really necessary to communicate your meaning. And try to keep those elements that make you seem accessible, approachable, and responsive. Lawyers often use words to shield themselves from others — this exercise can help you reverse that process.