We believe that beautiful documents (especially legal documents) are something everyone should strive for. We’ve discussed the problems and pitfalls of horrible documents before; now let’s see how to create agreements and contracts that are better.
Why should you care about beautiful documents?
They save you time because they are quick to sign. The shorter and simpler the document, more likely the document will be signed there and then.
They build relationships because the reader understands them. They’re quick to understand. Plain language, short and active-voice sentences will streamline the flow of information from the page and into the reader’s mind. The best beautiful documents won’t be forgotten. They’re also reassuringly clear and confident. We believe in the saying that “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. Drafting a clear, simple document is even more difficult and time-consuming than drafting reams of text, but if you or your attorneys can do this, it will show the reader that the drafter has a confident grasp of the situation. The document will be watertight, and won’t need to be plugged with synonyms and repetitions. All parties involved – and your clients in particular – will feel reassured by a firm understanding of their legal positions, rights and obligations.
The protect people from harm because they’re understandable to even second-language English speakers. Avoiding fancy language and Latin makes your document accessible to those readers who only understand simple English words. This is vitally important both in South Africa, where the majority of consumers don’t speak English at home, and abroad, where French, Spanish and Chinese are the dominant business languages for large portions of the economic world.
They avoid disputes, because a clear understanding of both parties’ rights and obligations will prevent misunderstanding of the key terms of the agreement or contract. Fewer misunderstandings mean fewer lawsuits, which will save money, time and energy for all parties involved.
What are beautiful documents?
They’re short. Very few people have the energy to wade through pages and pages of long-winded text. If a document is short, it’s more likely that your client will engage with it and grow into a more confident, comfortable relationship with your business.
They’re to the point. Beautiful documents clearly set out the parties’ rights and obligations, which can be picked out of the document with even a quick skimming read. If a client can see everything he’s asked to do, it’s less likely that he will try to get out of the contract because he “didn’t know about XYZ”.
They’re in simple English. Writing in plain language has become an internationally recognised legal standard, which is why it’s disturbing that so many lawyers don’t follow it. Plain language writing helps all parties to understand the content of their agreements that much better. In fact, our own Consumer Protection Act is both written in plain language and demands it in all documents and notices aimed at consumers.
They’re up-to-date. Beautiful documents comply with the latest laws and codes of recommended conduct, like King III™. This provides certainty and security for both you and your client, and ensures that you aren’t liable to pay any fines.
They’re customised to the current situation. Beautiful documents contain clauses that are designed to be variable, which you can use to change them depending on the client’s needs.
How can you make your own beautiful documents?
Use one word instead of unnecessary synonyms. You can shorten the common legal phrase “right, title and interest” into just “rights”. Drafters often use these words to plug gaps in their contracts, but the fact that they’re all synonymous makes them largely useless and clunky.
Use simple words instead of large, fancy terms. You can simplify “heretofore” into “until now”, and “facilitate” into “help”. Drafters tend to think that fancy terms give their writing an air of sophistication, but they really just break the reader’s concentration, while they try to translate what the drafter is really saying.
Use English words instead of Latin terms. You can simplify “per annum” into “per year”, or “inter alia” into “amongst others”. Like with fancy terms, drafters think that a document is “legal” until it includes a little Latin, but in reality, Latin just makes the document and its drafter seem condescending to the layperson.
Use the active voice instead of the passive voice. Passive-voice sentences tend to be longer and more complicated than active-voice sentences. The active voice will also bring the subject, object and verb of a sentence closer together, making it quicker to grasp the meaning of the sentence. Compare the passive sentence “a complaint can be lodged by the consumer” with the active sentence “the consumer can complain”.
Use words with clear meanings instead of vague ambiguities. Fancy terms can be dangerous, like the word “shall”, which can be read to include “will”, “may” or “must”, depending on how you read it. It’s far safer to simply use the clearer words “will”, “may” or “must”. The common “and/or” convention also has no legal meaning, and will be read by a judge as simply “or”.
Use a handful of short sentences instead of one long, labouring, twisting sentence. A sentence can become confusing if it goes on for too long or contains too many parentheses. Readers would have to read the sentence two or three or more times before they understand its true meaning. With shorter sentences, a beautiful document’s points come across quicker and let the reader understand them without having to re-read them.
We can make sure that any agreements, contracts, policies or other legal documents you need comply with the latest laws and conventions. We can also make sure that they’re written in plain and understandable English, and that your meaning is conveyed in the clearest, most user-friendly manner possible.