“Come Again?”: The Challenges of Translating Legalese into Layman’s Terms

By: Roma Amin, Fall 2017 HeLP Student Intern,

Recently, I was on the phone with a client explaining different provisions of her will and counseling her on certain choices she had to make. Several times during the phone call, she would stop me mid-sentence and say something along the lines of “You choose; you know best.” I kept repeating that I could not make these decisions for her and would restate the different options available to her. After the phone call, I had two reoccurring thoughts. First, I felt the weight of my (soon-to-be) title of “attorney,” a title that comes with great power and even greater responsibility. My client depended on my knowledge and expertise in this area of law and deferred to my judgment and advice. The second thought, and the one that continues to nag at me, is whether I had done a good job of translating the complex provisions of her will in a way that made it easy for her to understand and digest her options. Was my client telling me to make the decisions on my own because she did not completely understand what options were available to her?

Over the last three years in law school, I have expanded my knowledge of various areas of the law, and through my education, my “legal language” has flourished. When I now communicate with individuals in the legal field, I barely notice that I am not speaking in plain English. But the moment I try to explain what I’m learning in school to my parents or describe the merits of applying the business judgment rule to officer decisions (i.e. my corporate governance paper topic) to my friends, I realize just how indecipherable my words are to people without a legal education. When I think about how I must sound to our clinic clients, some whose reading skills do not go beyond a high school level, I fear that much of what I am saying is getting lost in translation.

The ability to effectively translate legalese into layman’s terms highlights a major skill required of lawyers: good communication. Good communication between the attorney and the client not only increases the chances of successfully resolving your client’s issue, but also increases the likelihood that you and your client will develop a trusting and positive relationship. Through my work in the HeLP Clinic, I have learned the importance of good communication, and I have worked to resolve the fear that I am not effectively translating legalese into plain language. For example, as a HeLP I student, I had the opportunity to do a counseling role play, in which I explained complex education law principles and created a visual aid to help the client understand her options. As a HeLP II student, I have learned that, in order to prepare for client-counseling meetings effectively, it helps to think of different analogies or examples that make the information easier to process for the client. Preparation beforehand helps immensely when speaking with my clients because it allows me to present the information in multiple ways. My hope is that by presenting various versions of explanations, I will help my client bridge the gap between legalese and layman’s terms.