LQ: Law Would Promote Plain Language

September 1, 2006
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The U.S. House of Representatives is considering new legislation that would convert the “government speak” in all federal regulations into plain language — plain, straightforward English. The bill would amend the United States Code, requiring federal agencies to dump the bureaucratic jargon and legalese to ensure “usability and clarity” of information they disseminate.

Backers of the bill believe that easily understandable, clear, concise language will save the government and taxpayers both time and money. The bipartisan bill, HR 4809, is co-sponsored by Rep. Candice Miller, R-Michigan, and Steven Lynch, D-Mass.

Long-time plain language advocate Joe Kimble, chair of the writing department at Cooley Law School and author of “Lifting the Fog of Legalese: Essays On Plain Language,” testified before the House Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs in March, citing examples of the type of convoluted language found in many federal regulations. In his book, he looks at the dollar and cents implications of all the legalese that’s used in written communications in both the public and private sectors.

For example, the Veterans Administration rewrote one of its form letters and tested the “before and after” versions, Kimble recalled. With the before version, a local veterans call center in Mississippi received about 1,200 calls a year from folks who didn’t understand what the letter meant. After the letter was rewritten, they received only about 200 calls a year questioning the meaning of the letter.

“Multiply that one letter sent out by one government agency by every form, form letter, bulletin, notice, manual or set of instructions that every department of every federal agency sends out. You’re talking about an incredible amount of wasted time and money,” he said.

Kimble also cited a before and after study involving a typical business memo. The researchers had Naval officers read the before and after versions of the memo and concluded that if all Navy personnel were to read plain language memorandums, the collective time they would save would be valued at between $250 million to $300 million a year.

“You get a sense of the kind of savings that could be produced if all government and business writers could learn to write clearly and simply and precisely,” Kimble remarked. “I think it’s the great hidden waste in business and government. We have to get beyond the myth that to write plain language means to write baby talk; plain language is not dumbed down language.”

Kimble believes that government owes it to citizens to be clear in communicating federal rules and regulations. 

“There are regulations, requirements and forms that govern people’s lives from cradle to grave, and people ought to be able to understand what they are,” he said.

Kimble got into the plain language movement shortly after graduating from law school. He has taught legal writing at Cooley Law School for 22 years, is editor in chief of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, editor of the Plain Language column in the Michigan Bar Journal, president of the international organization known as Clarity, and the drafting consultant on all federal court rules. For the past four years he has been involved in rewriting the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to make them clearer and more consistent.

“A big myth that some lawyers put out there is that you can’t write clearly and simply and still be legally accurate, which is just not so,” Kimble commented. “We’ve done so many demonstration projects over the years that show that you can take a piece of legalese and convert it into plain language.”

Language simply doesn’t have to be that complicated, he insists, and that’s a message he tries to get across to law students at Cooley. Trial attorney Elizabeth Joy Fossel of Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett is a huge advocate of the plain language movement. She took a writing course from Kimble years ago.

“The way you win a case is to convince somebody of a point. The clearer you are, the more chance you have of doing that,” Fossel observed. “A lot of people don’t realize that the bulk of trial work isn’t actually done on your feet in the courtroom; it’s done with written product.”

Fossel, who does a lot of briefing for judges, said plain language is a valued tool in everything she does. She explained that if she can win a case at an early stage with a clearly written brief that convinces the judge she’s right, it’s not only a nice plus for her, but it’s going to save her client a lot of money because it gets them out of litigation more quickly.

Kimble thinks the public ought to be able to understand most of the routine kinds of legal documents they have to sign, whether it’s a commercial lease, an employment agreement or a loan. It’s likely, he said, that many people don’t carefully review their insurance policy or mortgage document because they’re so conditioned to believe they won’t be able to understand what it says.

In his estimation, the plain language bill is such a bipartisan issue that it stands a good chance of becoming law. The House Committee on Government Reform passed the bill by voice vote, and it will come before the House for a vote when Congress returns from its summer recess.

Thom Haller, executive director of the Center for Plain Language in Washington, D.C., said he’d like to think the proposed legislation, which was brought about by a grass roots movement, would garner the support of many members of Congress because it simply makes sense — common sense.

The center promotes research, education and the use of plain language and draws its membership from academic, government and private sectors. Its goal is to increase the usefulness and efficiency of government, legal and business documents so that people who use those documents can “find what they need, understand what they find and act on that understanding.”

According to the Center for Plain Language, the benefits of plain language include improved customer satisfaction and customer response, improved employee satisfaction, improved efficiency and reduced “rework.” The center cites several examples of the cost benefits of plain language use, among them:

  • The Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development agency of Edmonton, Canada, revised 92 of its 700 agency forms with plain language, and evidence suggests the agency is saving at least 10 minutes on each new form it receives. The agency estimates it’s saving about $3.5 million annually with its revised forms.

  • Federal Express revised its ground operations manuals using plain language and tested them against the originals. Participants indicated they were able to find necessary information more quickly and more accurately in the revised manuals. Federal Express estimated that the new manuals would save the company $400,000 in the first year.

Haller has been in professional communications for 20 years and over that time has seen the movement towards plain language unfold and gain momentum. The plain language strategies outlined in the bill have the support of research, he pointed out.

“There has been a shift from organizations saying, ‘We’re putting this out there and if you can’t understand it, it’s your fault,’ to saying, ‘It’s our job to listen to you and shape our communication products so you can understand them,” Haller said. “I think increasingly that the business value behind clearer content is being recognized.”     LQX

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