Five Techniques for Simplifying Legalese

Digital illustration of a legal contract turning into an easily read passage of text.

It may sound obvious to say, but all content should be written with the reader in mind. Too often in complex, highly regulated industries like healthcare and financial services, we see content fall back on industry jargon and complicated legal language that is inaccessible to many readers.  

“Legalese” (the complex writing style commonly found in documents like contracts or terms of service) serves as a barrier to readers’ comprehension. In contrast, plain language helps readers understand the important ideas being communicated and take action. 

What Makes Legal Language So Hard to Read? 

A recent MIT study found that legal contracts contain “startlingly high proportions of certain difficult-to-process features.” The research highlighted a number of problematic features: 

  • Unfamiliar jargon 

  • Passive voice 

  • Non-standard capitalization (for example, phrases written in ALL CAPS) 

These features—particularly unfamiliar jargon and long, complex sentences—get in the way of readers’ ability to comprehend and recall what they’ve read. 

Why Does It Matter? 

Simplifying legalese is important because it not only shows empathy for your reader, it also helps increase readers’ comprehension and supports their ability to make informed, confident decisions. This is important in any context, but it is particularly important to consider in the context of legal language that have important real-world implications for readers (such as a binding contract or the terms of service for an app or online service).  

This work can be difficult because it can mean you need to “unlearn” how you’ve learned to write in certain settings, but the benefits are very real. In 2014, GE Aviation began an effort to promote plain language contracts in their digital-services business. This work had obvious, fast payoffs. Their new plain language agreements took 60% less time to negotiate compared to the original “legalese” versions. And more importantly, the new contracts all but eliminated customer disputes related to the wording of their contract. 

Moreover, reconsidering how we communicate is an important step toward creating more equitable, welcoming experiences for a diverse set of readers. Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that approximately half of adults (54%) lack literacy proficiency. Plain language helps ensure readers from a greater range of backgrounds, experiences, and education levels can comprehend and make informed decisions with the information given. 

How to Simplify Legal Language:   

  1. Break up long, complex sentences into shorter ones.

    Shorter sentences with simpler structures make content easier to follow by reducing the number of ideas in each sentence. Aim to write in active voice and limit each sentence to one idea. 

    Tip: Tools like the Hemingway Editor can help by flagging sentences as “hard” and “very hard” based on their length and complexity.
  2. Replace unfamiliar legal jargon with more familiar vocab.

    When content contains complex vocabulary and unfamiliar industry jargon or acronyms, readers can get lost fast. Unfamiliar terminology can also be alienating, so considering your word choices can be an important part of your equity efforts. 

    Identify complex legal terms and jargon that are likely to confuse non-professionals, then look for more familiar alternatives. If you’re not sure what language to use, ask non-experts about the topic or look to public spaces like social media to learn how people talk about a given topic. 

    Tip: A lexicon of approved vocabulary and phrases can be a great resource for content creators to ensure content is both consistent and easy to understand. 
  3. Break down complex ideas using tables and bulleted lists.

    Few things are harder for readers to parse than a wall of text. Look for opportunities to break ideas into smaller, more digestible pieces. Both tables and bulleted lists are great ways to break up content. They make it easier for readers to scan and quickly find the information they need. 

    Tip: Use descriptive subheads to help readers scan more easily and better navigate your content. 
  4. Use visuals to help better communicate complex ideas.

    Remember that different readers have different learning styles. Look for ways you can supplement written content with visuals or video. These alternate forms don’t need to take the place of written text. Think of them as complements to the text that provide different ways to access a given topic. 

    Tip: Always include transcript options with video content to ensure it is accessible to all users. 
  5. Test your content with real users. 

    At the end of the day, the best way to determine whether your content works for your audience is to ask them! Look for ways to integrate user testing into your content creation processes. Establish protocols to review site data and identify potential issues, then test content that isn’t performing as expected. 

Contributed by
Amy Wicks
Job Title
Director, CX & Strategy for Health & Life Sciences