Before and after: Describing a law — without legalese

Posted on Jul 30, 2014 in Center News, Legal

Joe Kimble is a pleasant oddity. He’s a law professor and author who says the law presents less risk when it is written clearly. We followed his advice to redo this legal notice.

Look what can happen when you ask a few questions. Working with attorneys, we cut through the clutter of a 61-word sentence. The new version is easier for readers to grasp and use the information.

Before (reading grade level: 28.5) After (reading grade level: 5.2)
Under a federal law, known as (1) Michelle’s Law, dependents who lose student status (2) due to a disability (that is, serious illness or injury) may be eligible to continue coverage (3) for up to one year from the first day of a medically necessary leave of absence (4) or at such time coverage would otherwise terminate under plan or coverage terms, whichever occurs first Michelle’s Law (1) helps students who must take a leave of absence from school for a serious illness or injury. (2) The law lets students keep their health coverage (3) for up to one year. Students must be attending college before the leave starts. They also need a letter from their doctor. The letter must say why the student needs the leave. (4)

(1) Do we need to say it’s a federal law?
No. Delete it.

(2) Do we need to talk about “dependents” or losing “student status?”
No, but we need to explain who is losing student status and why.

(3) What does “eligible to continue coverage” mean?
“Keep their health coverage” is a lot easier to understand.

(4) What is a medically necessary leave of absence?
The new version clears this up and explains how to prove it.

It can take time to develop a trusting relationship with your legal team. If something comes back from a legal review that doesn’t meet your requirements for plain language, make a counter offer. Send a simplified version and ask, “Does this new language still protect us in the way you need?”

It may take a few rounds, but when your lawyers see that you respect their work, they’re more likely to respect the expertise you bring to clear, simple communication.

BrianBerkenstockAbout the author: Brian Berkenstock is a Center for Plain Language Board Member, and a Content Strategist at Aetna.
Learn more about Brian