Thank you Clarity for inviting us to rewrite a legal document.
Here’s our client --- Gibson Sheat, a firm of lawyers in Wellington, New Zealand.They wanted to have a plain English version of their terms of engagement. They’d tried to write the document in plain English before, but had found the process too difficult. What an opportunity --- we said we’d help.
Here’s the process we used:We chose the documentWe tested it in several waysWe rewrote and redesigned the documentWe tested it againAnd we’re going to publish our findings.
Here’s our international team.Tania on the left from Write Limited in Auckland.Going clockwise, Lynda, me, and Melissa, from Write in Wellington. We did the document assessment, rewriting, and redesign.James is our user-testing expert based at KVH Industries in the United States.
Here’s the original document --- Gibson Sheat lawyers’ standard terms of engagement for them and their clients. Notice the two-column layout, the alphabetised subclauses, and the bullet list with no fewer than 13 items.Plenty of scope here.
We put the document through a WriteMark assessment using the 28 elements of the WriteMark Plain English Standard. This is an internationally-recognised mark of document quality. It covers structure, content, language, grammar, style consistency, and layout.
Then we started user-testing. We used an online survey and got feedback from participants who reflected Gibson Sheat’s client base.We asked them to rate the clarity of the information in the document by answering specific questions designed to check reader understanding.Results --- not all clear.
Now for the part we love --- cleaning up the document. It took several sweeps and lots of communicating with the client. We got some things right --- and others very wrong --- the first time around.
We made the purpose clear.We rearranged the text by grouping related fruit (I mean information) together under informative headings. We removed as much legalese --- and jargon --- as possible.We edited the text into a reader-friendly style that retained the meaning and intent of the original.
Here it is.We’ve redesigned the document adding more white space and better defined heading styles.We still have clause numbering for easy reference. And we’ve matched the client’s branding and used some design elements that are more contemporary.It’s now four pages long and a whole lot clearer.
I mentioned that we made the purpose clear. No matter how carefully you look at this text from the original, you won’t find the true purpose of the document.The text only tells you what the terms of engagement apply to, not what the document purpose is --- a critical aspect of a sound plain English document and something that should appear at the very beginning.
Now the purpose is a whole lot clearer and you can see other helpful information --- right where you need it at the beginning --- always a good place to start.Yes, it’s longer than the original but it includes some useful text from elsewhere and sets the reader up for the content that follows.
Time to user-test the rewrite with our participants. Remembering that the results we want to see for a plain English document are that it is clear and easy to understand on the first reading.We see it as a question of courtesy. Clear information helps you to establish excellent client relationships. Our law firm needed no convincing.We did a second WriteMark assessment too.
After testing the rewrite, it’s time for some finishing touches to content and design. Our client had some changes. Turns out we misinterpreted the original in one clause. Leave it to us and the wrong records will be destroyed! We made sure that clause was correct.Overall rating from the user-testing? --- all clear. Just what we wanted. And it meets the WriteMark Standard too.
A major part of the project was communication --- we could do a whole presentation just on that.To keep us to the tight timeline, the emails were flying. The client was equally focused on getting a good result, so gave us prompt and targeted advice.Thanks to everyone on the team for their huge contributions. As you all know, the short documents can be the hardest to work on.
Remember this from the law firm’s webpage? No jargon. Well they’ve put their money where their mouth is (so to speak as our input was free). What will their clients say? Does any jargon appear in the new terms of engagement?You be the judge. Take a look at our poster, grab a copy of the document, and let us know what you think.
The process helped us to get a clearly written, attractively designed document that works better for our law firm and the clients they work with. Our contact at the firm is very pleased. We look forward to hearing from them whether the messages now get through more effectively. We’ll be asking for feedback on how well the document works in real life.
We helped to lift the fog on a document that started out blurry.We learned a lot in the process and every project has its own challenges. Now we have another example project to draw on.We might do things a bit differently next time, but in this case we’re pleased with the end result.
We hope that this rewrite will be useful as inspiration for others --- plain English practitioners and legal specialists alike.And that people looking to engage a law firm will demand a plain English contract like the one that Gibson Sheat offer. One that carries the WriteMark as evidence of document clarity.
Engaging legal help just got easier - Anne Marie Chisnall - Write Ltd
Engaging legal help just got
Anne-Marie Chisnall, Write Limited
Lisbon | 14 October 2010