Many people see lawyers as pompous and unapproachable. Perhaps the language we use is the reason? Here, Neil Quantick explores the concept of plain English, and how it’s at the heart of a very different service offering from Quantick Daley.
A great profession
I’m terribly proud of being a solicitor. I’m terribly proud to be part of a profession that helps people: helping them move home, helping them buy or sell a business, and helping them when they’ve lost a loved one. You need a solicitor – and chances are there’s something significant happening in your life. It’s a very privileged role we play.
However, I’m also terribly concerned. I’m concerned that we’ve been cocooned in our own little bubble – a bubble that no one else has been allowed to play in but us. Our bubble has allowed us all to do things our way, whether punters really like it or not. Has that bubble made us lazy, or perhaps, dare I say it, arrogant? Has it left us with a culture that includes an unwillingness to question ourselves? I think it has. There are aspects to the culture of our profession that leaves me baffled. One (of several I’m afraid) is the extraordinary way we communicate in writing. It’s not just the way we communicate with each other, but also with others outside our wonderful profession who are privileged enough to be receiving a letter (or some other written work of art) from us.
The real world
Before I qualified, I worked as a paralegal for a long-haul travel company. They were (in fact still are) a very successful outfit. And that despite some work practices that we lawyers would think odd. I was the only ‘lawyer’ in the company. My job was to deal with those returning holidaymakers who had either injured themselves or had a rubbish holiday (in their view). An interesting role, and one that meant I had written contact with customers. This was reason enough for me to be sent on a course that would teach me how to communicate well in writing. The course was to be run by The Plain English Campaign. Outrageous! Teach me how to communicate? I didn’t need to be told how to write letters. I had a law degree, for crying out loud. Some day soon I was going to be desperately important – I was going to be a solicitor. Solicitors say stuff the way they want to, the way they always have. It’s great that they ‘hasten to enclose’. It’s fine that they ‘should be extremely grateful if people would please be so kind as to….’. And it’s always fun to ‘revert’. That didn’t need to change. Plain English – pah!
The course lasted one day and it changed the way I thought about written communication forever. Looking back, my time at that travel company has had a profound effect on my life as a solicitor – and not just in terms of using plain English. The plain English thing is really simple. In a nutshell, it’s:
- don’t pad (that is, use words that don’t add anything);
- be punchy;
- never use jargon; and
- structure documents well, and meaningfully.
So why use it? Simple – it says a lot about us. It’s every bit as powerful a message as the clothes we wear, the tone of our voice, the expression on our face. It says something about our personality, our ‘brand’. Many hold the view that solicitors overcomplicate things. They think we’re stuffy. They think we’re full of self-importance and we’re difficult to get hold of. Do the letters we write, and the documents we produce, reinforce that? In any event, could we pick up the phone more often? Would an email have been better than a letter? It’s so easy to reach for the dictation machine.
I mentioned some odd work practices at the travel company I worked for. Get some of these:
- understand your clients and deliver what they want, the way they want it;
- examine the way you work and improve if you can;
- work hard and efficiently between nine and five, then go home; and
- be rude to a customer (or colleague) and expect someone to question your behaviour.
It’s madness, I know, and certainly no way to run a business. Thank goodness that this insanity hasn’t yet reached our profession.