Love brainteasers? See if you can figure out what this means:
“No vehicle shall be turned so as to proceed in the opposite direction within an intersection, or upon any street in a business district, or upon a freeway, expressway or controlled-access highway, or where authorized signs are erected to prohibit such movement, or at any other location unless such movement can be made with reasonable safety to other users of the street and without interfering with the safe operation of any traffic that may be affected by such movement.”
The answer: “you aren’t allowed make a U-turn unless you’re on a street where you can do it safely.”
This sentence was once a real clause in the Ohio Traffic Code. It’s a prime example of the perils of legalese: the formal, jargon-filled kind of legal language most non-lawyers struggle to understand. It was so bad, in fact, that it wound up in the (sadly now-defunct) Legalese Hall of Shame.
It’s also not that different from the language found in many organizations’ paperwork. Legalese is everywhere—contracts, user licenses, employment agreements, and so forth. As insurance executive William Pitt recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review, it’s a problem “affecting a broad swath of industries and functions including real estate financing, content licensing, consumer finance, residential leases, consumer warranties, and insurance.”
That said, many lawyers have good reasons for writing in a polysyllabic, Latin-heavy, passive tone. Even though legalese may seem almost intentionally baffling at times, it serves an important purpose, and “translating” it doesn’t always work. According to Pitt:
“For some decades, the most commonly touted solution has been the conversion of legalese into plain English. Unfortunately the magic wand with which to achieve this conversion has proved elusive; companies are understandably reluctant to sacrifice legal certainty for clarity. And there’s a reason for the trade-off. As the linguist and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in The Language Instinct, legal language often appears convoluted because it cannot assume the levels of trust and mutual understanding that inform most other types of communication.”
In other words, the legalese exemplified herein is utilized so as to forthwith avoid any and all potential instances of ambiguity, misapprehension, and/or dubiety. In other, other words, it’s convoluted because it has to be precise.
Fortunately, thanks to advances in technology, a solution is emerging. Pitt writes:
“But there are two problems with legalese that can be solved: length and lack of specificity. Most of these contracts are not tailored to the particular circumstances of the customer; they are, very largely, one-size-fits-all. Between specific references to the contracting parties lies a thicket of boilerplate, much of which does not apply to the particular relationship the contract sets out to capture.
By using technology to personalize and present contracts, businesses can dramatically cut their length and their abstract complexity, making it easier for customers to understand their rights and responsibilities—all without diminishing legal certainty.”
Pitt’s company and others are using personalized digital policies to strip agreements of complexity and legal bafflegab while simplifying navigation and increasing transparency for customers. Some organizations are taking it even further. Insurance startup Lemonade, for instance, recently launched “policy 2.0,” which is not only simplified but open-source, “enabling consumers to suggest coverage extensions and other changes.”
Although this story is about insurance, the lessons could certainly apply to workforce policies and employment agreements. Ask us about how technology can help your organization become less complex and more efficient. And for more ideas about how to improve your policies, check out our blog post: “What Should You Include in Your Employee Handbook?”