Avoid Legalese In Your Contracts, Live A Happier Life

I love being a lawyer. That may sound surprising and it’s certainly not something you’d hear from most people in my profession, but I get to help people by focusing on an area that is near and dear to my heart. I’m extremely lucky. That doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and rainbows, however. There are some things that truly rankle my patience, and legalese is one of those things. 

Lawyers employ legalese for a variety of reasons: maybe it's a power trip to justify all that time and money spent in training; maybe the industry standard begs for it; or maybe that's just how it's always been done so why rock the boat? Whatever the reason, the end result is obscure, arcane, and impenetrable language that unnecessarily complicates any transaction. Worse yet, it's been going on for so long that many people think that contracts HAVE to be written that way in order to be legally binding, which is patently untrue. 

A written contract, when executed properly, is supposed to perform two functions: 1) act as instructions for both parties on how to perform the agreement, and 2) act as evidence that an agreement took place. But if the contract is unreadable and impervious to understanding, either or both of those purposes could be frustrated. And if a contract is so hard to understand that you can’t figure out what you’re supposed to do after signing, it might be unenforceable or invalid. 

I actually hate reading contracts written in legalese, so when a client asks me to draft a new agreement for them, or rewrite an existing one, I strive to make it a document that a non-lawyer can actually comprehend and - dare I say - enjoy reading. That means axing the legalese wherever possible and using plain English. 

So what does that mean for you? Well first off, it means getting rid of the "thenceforth's" the "whereas's" the "thusly's." It means using one sentence to say something rather than three. It means dropping redundant provisions and paragraphs. My mantra is to:

Draft all professional documents, contracts included, as if I were writing a professional email to a colleague.

In other words, I try to keep it short, sweet, and to the point. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. This is a provision from a standard licensing agreement to use artwork in the promotional material for a feature film.

"The undersigned hereby waives any right that he/she/it may have to inspect or approve the finished motion picture, or the advertising copy or printed matter that may be used in connection therewith, or the use to which it may be applied."

Now as legalese goes, this isn’t too bad. In fact it’s downright readable. But there’s still a ton of room for improvement, and if you’re not legalese-inclined it could take you several tries to get it. To me, that's heartbreaking. Fortunately, with a little understanding of what the contract is trying to do, you can rewrite it to be infinitely more useful. Here’s my rewrite.

“[Name of Party] has no right to inspect or approve the finished film or any advertising or printed material used in connection with the film."

Isn’t that much better? It's clear and concise, which is the gold standard in any professional writing. And honestly, you can get even less formal, depending on how comfortable you are with the other parties to the contract. 

“I agree that I have no rights to inspect or approve the film that my work will be used to promote or the final artwork.”

There will certainly be times where you can't escape legalese, and some industries rely on it more heavily than others, but I'm willing to bet you can nix it in most situations. I think you'll also find that with some practice, you can stray pretty far from what's generally accepted and still wind up with a useful document. There’s just no reason to make something hard to read when you have more important things to focus on. 

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA