Alan Siegel: Let’s simplify legal jargon! (deconstruction)

Limited legal jargon comprehension is an obstacle on the way to protect one’s rights or receive benefits. Alan Siegel, a branding and business communication expert presenting at TED, argues for simplification—using plain English and making voluminous documents more succinct—of the language in paperwork. Although in doing so he provides relatable evidence and poses crucial questions, certain answers appear one-sided.

Intelligibility of the language, be it English, Russian or Kazakh, facilitates individuals in dealing with documentation. Multi-paged agreements, which pop up before proceeding to use a service, are a thing consumers prevalently ignore, hastily scroll through and check off. In the words of Siegel, shift to plain English will ameliorate the otherwise unnecessarily complex legal language. The positive feedbacks on the use of a simple calendar for responsibilities by IBM proves the effectiveness of doing so. Simplicity of the documentation language reduces the risks people expose themselves to, thereby cutting expenses on hiring a lawyer that would “translate” documents and mediate in working with them. It would also add to their understanding of steps to be taken in contact with the company as an employee, as a user of products or a natural person.

Siegel attempts to show his genuine concern about how “we”, the way he repetitively addresses the audience, interact with legal documentation. However, he ceases to show consideration toward other aspects of language other than its comprehensiveness. Simplification of language inevitably leads to reduced need in jargon, a means of decreasing verbosity and communicating ideas precisely; hence, in a chain reaction, it potentially makes such vocabulary atrophic and increases wordiness. Perhaps, finding an alternative way of amplifying comprehension might have been suggested by Siegel, one of which is enclosing an additional page of glossary to documents shortly explaining terms.

Along with the promotion of plain English, the speaker emphasizes concision as a prerequisite for paperwork. Siegel cites Obama’s words (“I don’t see why we can’t have a one-page, plain English consumer credit agreement.”) and mentions he sought assistance from two highly-qualified consumer credit lawyers to approve his work on content simplification condensation. Again, as he implies he is focused mainly on the ability of people to grasp the content presented in few pages, there is no mention of the hidden danger in shrinking papers. Explicit coverage of all points seems of key salience since both parties—service provider and service consumer—may subsequently have reasons to open a legal dispute, where each word in the document matters. By squeezing every item into limited space, each side’s vulnerability to risk rises tenfold. Not only does this strategy cause omission of substantial details, but also fails to reach the initial goal of making documents more accessible now that the amount of items per fragment goes up. The presenter possibly should include drawbacks of redesigning documentation in such a way, too, to allow the audience to evaluate the status quo and draw an inference independently.

In conclusion, clear language use and succinctness in documentation promoted by the speaker should be valorised without diminishing language and detailedness. Siegel’s somewhat flawed standpoint still resonates with many since he addresses a problem an individual stumbles upon regularly. Hypothetically, if moderately simplified in terms of language sophistication and size, legal papers might be sufficiently clear, transparent and simple.

What would you do to make paperwork more accessible?

1 thought on “Alan Siegel: Let’s simplify legal jargon! (deconstruction)

  1. Great analytical deconstruction. Your summary of the talk helped me grasp the main ideas, and you point out the main drawback of simplicity, which is the lack of complex detail. You only have a couple grammatical mistakes I would point out:

    1. The positive feedbacks (always singular) on the use of a simple calendar for responsibilities by IBM proves the effectiveness of doing so.
    2. However, he ceases (means “stop doing something”. I think you want “fails” here, since he never started doing it) to show consideration toward other aspects of language other than its comprehensiveness.

    Liked by 1 person

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