One of the biggest mistakes that small businesses can make is getting their message tangled in the dangerous waters of legalese.
Small businesses – like large corporations and conglomerates – are customer driven. However, small businesses have the unique advantage of being closer to their client-base. One of the surest ways to alienate those clients is using legalese to make your legal policies, such as privacy policies, terms and conditions, and disclaimers, unnecessarily complicated.
1. What is Legalese?
Legalese is a technical form of writing often used by lawyers and members of the legal community to discuss legal definitions, terms, laws, by-laws, and contracts. It’s widely accepted that legalese is a fairly difficult form of writing with a very narrow area of application.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped many businesses – small and large – from using it.
Legalese is most often employed by businesses with the intention of ensuring that their policies are legally sound. Their intentions to protect their business are well placed but, ultimately, only serve to cause more harm.
Businesses who utilize legalese often write long, convoluted sentences, which incorporate little-known legal terms and, in the worst cases, Latin.
Phrases like the following are excellent examples of legalese:
In witness whereof the parties hereunto have set their hands to these presents as a deed on the day month and year hereinbefore mentioned.
Put simply, this is the “Date” line which often follows a signature. That’s right – two lines of text just to ask for the date.
It’s easy to see why the aforementioned phrase is an excellent example of the type of legalese that makes customers start to doubt the reliability of a business.
2. What Makes Legalese So Bad?
1. It has a bad reputation — Legalese has earned a nasty reputation for burying important information in complicated, run-on sentences. This is often referred to as the “fine print” of a disclaimer or legal policy.
2. It’s exclusive — Terms and conditions often employ an excessive use of Latin words and phrases known only to the lawyer who wrote them.
4. It’s a legal no-no — Many states and countries now have regulations and parameters on legal writing. Most new regulations state that companies and businesses must use clear and plain language when drafting legal documents. This prevents any potential lawsuits on the basis of perceived word manipulation.
3. How Using Legalese Could Harm Your Business
1. Legalese could lead to customer abandonment
Legalese creates space between the customer and the company. Clear and plain language allows customers without legal know-how to feel at ease with your business, rather than feeling taken advantage of or manipulated. Customers who distrust your company will not be quick to start or maintain a relationship with your business.
2. Your business’s terms may not be understood — or followed
Using clear language creates a well-defined set of conditions between the customer and the company. When you generate terms and conditions, for example, the goal is to have users understand how to appropriately interact with your site, right?
The less difficulty a prospective client has in understanding your business’s policies, the more likely they will become a client and have fewer complaints in the future. One of the biggest complaints customers have during disagreements is that they were unclear about the policies of a particular agreement. Transparency and clear language help to mitigate these potential problems.
3. Legalese could land you in hot water
As mentioned, rules and regulations are tightening on business’ use of legalese in their policies, terms, and disclaimers. The EU-based General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will take effect on May 25 and dictates newer, stricter, and far-reaching guidelines for the ways that businesses interact with consumers’ data and the disclosure of privacy practices.
The regulation specifies that businesses must employ clear and plain language in their privacy policies.
Even though the GDPR is based in the EU, it applies to any and all businesses that target EU citizens or residents. For a summary of the key concepts and requirements, check out our GDPR overview.
All of these issues can lead to a bad public image and an illegitimate reputation — both of which can bring a business to its knees. As seen with the recent Facebook scandal over privacy policies, even the largest of companies are not exempt from public outrage when it comes to unclear language.
4. Legalese vs. Clear and Plain Language
So what should small businesses do instead of using legalese?
1. Be clear
Instituting clear and plain language is the first – and most important – step. Avoid long, drawn out sentences that include any of the aforementioned tactics.
2. Emphasize where needed
For possibly contentious inclusions, such as a penalty clause in a terms and conditions agreement, be sure to highlight (bold, italicize, underline, etc.) key sections to help avoid disagreements in the future.
3. Be transparent
None of this detracts from the fact that legal policies need to be legally binding and comprehensive. However, ensuring that clients are fully aware of the policies in place and completely understand all disclaimers, policies, and terms on your site benefits your business greatly – whether through referrals, sales, or by simply having fewer complaints to field.
Being transparent with users while also protecting your business through clear and concise language is one way to ensure happy customers and reduced risks.