Final Version    Clarity 2012    Client Preferences Presentation
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Final Version Clarity 2012 Client Preferences Presentation

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This presentation describes the results of my empirical research on client preferences for legal communication. This is one of the first studies to directly address client preferences for various ...

This presentation describes the results of my empirical research on client preferences for legal communication. This is one of the first studies to directly address client preferences for various forms of legal communication. The article explaining the complete results can be found in volume 14 of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, starting at page 121.

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Final Version    Clarity 2012    Client Preferences Presentation Final Version Clarity 2012 Client Preferences Presentation Presentation Transcript

  • The Public Speaks: An Empirical Study of Legal CommunicationChristopher Trudeau,Thomas M. Cooley Law School
  • Why This Study? Because We’re Still LeftWith Many Unanswered Questions• To what degree do clients and non-clients prefer plain language over traditional legal language?• Do clients read what lawyers write?• How do clients react when they see complicated legal language that they don’t understand?• How often will they look up complicated terms?• Have they ever been so frustrated by such language that they quit reading a document?
  • Designing the Study• Initially, I focused on using a printed survey distributed to current or past clients by contacting many Michigan law firms; however, it became clear that this was not practical. – Many Michigan law firms were understandably hesitant to provide client contact information or forward the printed survey.• So I switched to an online survey, which provided the following benefits: – There was less burden on law firms because they could simply forward the survey’s link to their client email list. – The survey could be completely anonymous, and the responders’ names would not be revealed to me or the law firms. This would also reduce clients’ concern that their attorney would find out how they really feel.
  • But Firms Were Still Resistant!• Even though I would not receive any client information whatsoever, some firms again denied my requests for help.• Although the stated reasons varied, they ranged from not wanting to bother clients with ―trivial matters‖ to a managing partner telling me he was afraid of the responses that his firm’s clients might provide.• But four firms were willing to send the survey to their clients, and all four focused on different practice areas. – Civil defense, civil litigation, estate planning, real estate, and family law.
  • Expanding the Sample• I expanded my study sample to include the public for the following reasons: – It increased my sample size, which resulted in a more representative sample of the population; – It allowed me to reach more past clients (and non-clients) than through individually selected firms; and – It allowed me to compare the results between clients and non-clients.• I used snowball sampling to accomplish this. That is, I asked those receiving the survey to forward the survey’s link to their contact list, who would then take the survey and forward the link. – As you can gather, the survey distribution ―snowballs,‖ and you receive more responses.
  • The Survey: 28 Questions in Four Categories1. Experience with Attorneys – Designed to separate clients from non-clients.2. Preferences for Attorney Communication – Designed to gather information in areas for which there is little or no empirical data, such as • The importance responders attached to understanding an attorney, • The percentage who have received a legal document that was difficult to understand, and • The responders’ reactions when reading material that was difficult to understand.
  • Four Categories continued:3. Choice-of-Language Questions – Designed to test whether responders preferred plain legal language or traditional legal language. – Importantly, these questions did not skew the answers to plain language; they simply gave responders a choice between a plain version and a traditional version. – Limited to the following areas: • Active voice v. passive voice (four questions) • Strong verbs v. nominalizations (two questions) • Plain words v. complex words (four questions) • Explaining a legal term v. not explaining that term (one question)4. Demographic Questions – Designed to help categorize the results on age, education, etc.
  • Analyzing the Responses• 376 people responded to the survey. – I had hoped for 300, so this was a pleasant surprise.• Clients comprised 54.5% of the sample. (220 responses) – Non-Clients comprised 45.5%. (171 responses)• Responses in every age category: – 59 (16.3%) were 18 – 29 years of age; – 100 (27.6%) were 30 – 39 years of age; – 64 (17.7%) were 40 – 49 years of age; – 78 (21.5%) were 50 – 59 years of age; – 46 (12.7%) were 60 – 69 years of age; – 11 (3.0%) were 70 – 79 years of age; and – 1 respondent (0.3%) was 80+ years of age.
  • Analyzing the Responses continued:• Responses by education level: – 116 respondents (31.9%) had less than a bachelor’s degree (an associate’s degree, some college, or a high-school diploma); – 105 (28.9%) had a bachelor’s degree; – 80 (22.1%) had a master’s or doctoral degree; and – 61 (16.8%) had a law degree.• Caveat: The sample includes far more responders with advanced degrees than the population as a whole. – But that is a benefit here because it allowed me to more accurately measure the differences between the educational levels.
  • The Results: Importance of Clear, UnderstandableCommunication• Question: How important is it for a client to understand what an attorney is saying in a letter or document? – 99.7% of responders thought it was at least important to understand an attorney! • 88.3% said it was very important. • 11.4% said it was important.• This result may seem obvious, but it provides empirical support for the central goal of the plain-language movement.
  • The Results: Importance of Clear, UnderstandableCommunication• Question: In your lifetime, have you ever received a letter or document from any attorney that was difficult to understand? – 71% of responders indicated that they had received a document that was difficult to understand at some point in their lifetime.• The Takeaway: 99.7% of the responders thought it was important to understand attorneys, yet 7 out of 10 have struggled to do so at some point in their lives. – Clearly attorneys should strive to do better!
  • The Results: Importance of Clear, UnderstandableCommunication• Question: If you read an attorney’s letter or legal document and you did not understand a term, would you look up that term? – 32% said they would ―always‖ look up the term, – 27% would ―often‖ look up the term, – 25% would ―sometimes‖ look up the term, – 13% would ―rarely‖ look up the term, and – 4% would ―never‖ look up the term.• So while a majority (58%) would at least ―often‖ look up a term, 17% would rarely or never do so. That means 1 in 8 people wouldn’t understand the term – odds that I sure wouldn’t want to take.
  • The Results: Importance of Clear,Understandable Communication• Question: How does it make you feel when an attorney uses Latin words or complicated words in written documents? – Note: I asked this question early in the survey so the answers would not be biased by previous responses. Respondents’ Reaction To Complicated Terms or Latin Words Less than Master’s & Answer Choice Overall Bachelor’s Bachelor’s Doctoral Juris Doctor Annoyed 40.9% 43.5% 41.9% 40.0% 34.4% Bothered a little 18.7% 23.5% 14.3% 18.8% 14.8% No influence 29.8% 22.6% 31.4% 30% 44.3% Impressed 0.5% 1.7% 0% 0% 0% Other 10.0% 8.7% 12.4% 11.3% 6.6%
  • The Results: Importance of Clear, UnderstandableCommunication• Question: Have you ever felt so frustrated when reading an attorney’s letter or a legal document that you stopped reading it before it ended? – 38% said they had stopped reading a document out of frustration, – 16% could not recall doing so, and – 47% had not stopped reading a document.• But what frustrates these people? After this question, I added a text box asking responders to explain why they stopped reading a document. Here are some responses: – It was all in the English language, yet I could not understand the mumbo-jumbo!! This for me feels condescending and corrupt.
  • The Results: Importance of Clear,Understandable Communication – If you can’t understand the – Because it made me feel dumb. document, there is little And I didn’t know what was motivation to read the entire being said. thing. – If too much of the content is – Lack of answer, simplicity, and difficult to understand, I feel way too long. like I’ve already missed too – Because of legal terminology. I much to get the full meaning. do not feel like I am a stupid – I used to work for some good person by any stretch of the attorneys that treated people imagination, but just imagine as equals. So when I used my how those feel of average or own, I was mad that he was below-average intelligence due using terms to make himself to lack of education, social sound better than me. circumstances, etc.
  • The Results: Choice-of-Language Questions• Overall Result: 80.2% of clients & non-clients preferred the plain version! – This is eerily similar to the results of the judicial surveys.• Past clients were 5% more likely to choose the plain version. – 82.4% of clients selected the plain version. – 77.5% of non-clients selected the plain version.• This was much higher than I expected for a few reasons: – I varied the complexity of the 11 sentences. • Some were single-variable questions with only one error. • Others were multi-variable questions with more than one error. – All the sentences were understandable, so there was no obvious choice in most instances.
  • The Results: Choice-of-Language Questions• Overall Result: As complexity increases, so does the preference for plain language. – 75% of responders chose the plain version for single-variable sentences. (Those six sentences where there was only a single error.) – 86% of responders chose the plain version for multi-variable sentences. (Those five sentences where there were multiple errors.)• There was almost no difference between clients and non- clients.• And there were only minor differences based on the responder’s education level.
  • The Results: Choice-of-Language Questions• Overall Result: As education increases, so does the preference for plain language! – 76.5% of responders with less than a bachelor’s degree preferred the plain version; – 79.4% of those with bachelor’s degree preferred the plain version; – 82.0% of responders with master’s or doctoral degrees preferred the plain version; and – 86.0% of responders with law degrees preferred the plain version.• These results were counter-intuitive to me. I had predicted just the opposite.
  • The Results: Choice-of-Language Questions• Moreover, this result was true for almost all of the individual questions. – The only time the percentages substantially varied from this trend was for responders with law degrees. – And, even then, this only happened on the two questions where I asked respondents about two of legal writing’s common offenders – using multi-word prepositions (pursuant to v. under) and using Latin words (inter alia v. among other things). – So it is not too surprising that the percentages dropped for those questions.
  • The Results: Choice-of-Language Questions Choice-of-Language Questions: Educational Distribution Percentage Selecting Plain-Language Version Question & Less than Master’s & Error Type Overall Avg. Bachelor’s Bachelor’s Doctoral Juris Doctor Q.14 (passive) 56.7% 47.4% 57.1% 60.0% 70.5% Q.15 (wordy) 83.1% 80.7% 81.0% 81.3% 93.4% Q.16 (passive) 72.0% 63.2% 68.6% 77.5% 86.9% Q.17 (wordy) 90.6% 87.9% 89.4% 93.7% 93.3% Q.18 (wordy) 97.2% 94.8% 97.1% 100% 98.4% Q.19 (wordy) 81.0% 85.3% 81.9% 82.5% 68.9% Q.20 (legal explanation) 78.4% 79.3% 75.7% 82.3% 76.3% Q.21 (wordy) 97.0% 100% 97.1% 98.8% 88.5% Q.22 (passive) 68.1% 62.3% 65.7% 63.8% 88.5% Q.23 (wordy) 79.6% 69.8% 81.0% 83.8% 90.2% Q.24 (passive & wordy) 78.7% 71.3% 79.0% 78.8% 91.8% Total Avg. 80.2% 76.5% 79.4% 82.0% 86.0%
  • The Results: Choice-of-Language Questions• Active v. Passive: Individual Results• Question 14: (Single-Variable) – 56.7% – The employer’s attorney questioned the witnesses. – 43.3% – The witnesses were questioned by the employer’s attorney.• Question 16: (Multi-Variable) – 72.0% – The Board of Directors decided to review the file. – 28.0% – A decision was made by the Board of Directors to review the file.• Question 22: (Single-Variable) – 68.1% – The court dismissed the case. – 31.9% – The case was dismissed by the court.• Question 24: (Multi-Variable) – 78.7% – Michigan courts have consistently held that homeowners must actually supply alcohol to a minor to violate the statute. – 21.3% – It has been consistently held by Michigan courts that a homeowner must actually engage in the supplying of alcohol to a minor to commit a violation of the statute.
  • The Results: Choice-of-Language Questions• Active v. Passive Overall: Respondents preferred the active voice 69% of the time. – 73% for client responders. – 65% for non-client responders.• A significant difference between single-variable questions (14 & 22) and multi-variable questions (16 & 24) – 62% selected active for single-variable questions. – 75% for multi-variable questions.• Why the 13% difference? – Both options for the single-variable sentences were understandable on the first read through and were about the same amount of words. – The active sentences were noticeably shorter in the multi-variable questions, and the passive sentences both used nominalizations along with the passive voice.
  • The Results: Choice-of-Language Questions• Word-Choice Questions: Individual Results• Question 15: – 83.1% – Discovery may begin before the judge considers the motion. – 16.9% – Discovery may proceed prior to the judge’s consideration of the motion.• Question 17: – 90.5% – If this breach continues, my client will immediately terminate this contract. – 9.5% – If there is a continuation of this breach, my client will effect an immediate termination of this contract.• Question 18: – 97.2% – I have signed and enclosed the stipulation to dismiss your case. – 2.8% – I am herewith returning the stipulation to dismiss your case; the same being duly executed by me.
  • The Results: Choice-of-Language Questions• Question 19: – 81.0% – Under the statute, you must purchase insurance. – 19.0% – Pursuant to the statute, you must purchase insurance.• Question 21: – 97% – The court, among other things, decided that the defendant was negligent. – 3% – The court, inter alia, decided that the defendant was negligent.• Question 23: – 79.6% – Before the injury, my client was able to work a full week. Therefore, the injury has significantly impacted my client’s ability to lead a normal life. – 20.4% – Prior to the injury, my client was able to work a full week. Therefore, said injury has significantly impacted my client’s ability to lead a normal life.
  • The Results: Choice-of-Language Questions• Word-Choice Questions Overall: Responders chose the plain version 88% of the time. – Both clients and non-clients preferred the plain version at similar rates: 90% for clients & 86% for non-clients.• Astounding for two reasons: – I never asked responders to choose the plain version; rather, I simply asked them which passage they would prefer to read. – Only a couple of traditional passages were difficult to understand; the rest were understandable.
  • The Results: Choice-of-Language Questions• Explaining Legal Terms: Question 20 – 21.6% — If you don’t respond, the court will issue a default judgment. – 78.4% — If you don’t respond, the court will issue a default judgment. That means you’ll lose, and the court will give the plaintiff what he is asking for.• Both clients & non-clients overwhelmingly preferred the legal explanation: 81.2% of clients & 75.3% of non-clients.• Note: Both version were plainly written because I was testing whether responders would prefer the explanation even though the passage was longer.• The Takeaway: Normally, attorneys should reduce the number of words in their documents. But if those words are essential to explaining a term, then attorneys should include that explanation.
  • Conclusion• Where do we go from here? – This study should not be the end of the discussion. – I encourage others to validate these results by performing similar studies or extensions of this study in different locales. – I’ll offer my data set, the survey, and my assistance to any who would like to conduct similar studies in the future. • Contact me at trudeauc@cooley.edu, and I’d be happy to send you much more detailed results, the survey, etc. Thank You!