CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Legal documents can be a real headache for anyone trying to understand them, whether it’s applying for a mortgage or reviewing a contract. Here’s a surprising twist to all this “legalese” — even lawyers don’t like these complicated documents, according to a new study from MIT. The study reveals that while lawyers have a better ability to interpret legal documents compared to non-lawyers, they still find it easier to understand the same documents when translated into plain English.
Lawyers rated plain English contracts as higher quality, more likely to be signed, and equally enforceable as those written in legalese. The findings suggest that lawyers may be open to changing the way legal documents are written, despite the entrenched tradition of using complex language.
“No matter how we asked the questions, the lawyers overwhelmingly always wanted plain English,” says Edward Gibson, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and the senior author of the study, in a university release. “People blame lawyers, but I don’t think it’s their fault. They would like to change it, too.”
The MIT team has been studying the structure and comprehensibility of legal language for several years. They found that long definitions inserted in the middle of sentences, known as center-embedding, make legal texts harder to read. This structure, which is not natural in regular language production, significantly affects understanding. When the researchers replaced center-embedded structures with more straightforward sentences and separate definitions, people’s comprehension improved.
This discovery led the researchers to explore why lawyers write documents in such an impenetrable style. They recruited over 100 lawyers from various law schools and firms to participate in comprehension tasks similar to those conducted with non-lawyers in a previous study. The results showed that while lawyers performed better than non-lawyers, they still struggled with understanding legalese. This finding challenges the notion of the “curse of knowledge” hypothesis, which suggests that lawyers are unaware of how difficult their documents are for others.
Using plain language in legal documents would benefit everyone, including lawyers and non-lawyers, as legalese proves to be a barrier to comprehension. Simpler language was rated higher in quality by lawyers and more likely to be agreed upon and enforced. These findings point to the copy-and-paste hypothesis, where lawyers often reuse old contracts and make edits, leading to increasingly complex language over time.
“We don’t know all the details yet, but our guess is that lawyers add center-embedded clauses when they want to restrict an original contract for a specific situation,” says Gibson. “We’re working on unraveling this further.”
The research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.