Legal documents, such as contracts or deeds, are notoriously difficult for non-lawyers to understand. A new study by cognitive scientists at MIT has determined why these documents are often so inscrutable.
After analyzing thousands of legal contracts and comparing them to other types of texts, the researchers discovered that lawyers used to frequently insert long definitions in the middle of sentences. Linguists have already demonstrated that this type of structure, known as “center-embedding”, makes text much harder to understand.
Although central integration had the most significant effect on difficulty of comprehension, the MIT study found that the use of unnecessary jargon also contributes.
“It’s no secret that legal language is very difficult to understand. It’s often borderline misunderstanding,” says Edward Gibson, professor of brain and cognitive science at MIT and lead author of the new item. “In this study, we document in detail what the problem is.”
The researchers hope their findings will lead to greater awareness of this issue and spur efforts to make legal documents more accessible to the general public.
“Making the legal language simpler would help people better understand their rights and obligations, and therefore less likely to be punished unnecessarily or denied their legitimate rights,” says Eric Martinez, a recent graduate of a school of law and licensed attorney who is now a graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences at MIT.
Martinez is the lead author of the study, which appears in the journal Cognition. Frank Mollica, a former visiting scholar at MIT who is now a lecturer in computational cognitive science at the University of Edinburgh, is also one of the paper’s authors.
Translate into legalese
While a student at Harvard Law School, Martinez became interested in how lawyers and judges use language to communicate. He enrolled in an MIT linguistics course taught by Gibson, and after earning his law degree, he joined Gibson’s lab as a graduate student.
Using a text analysis tool capable of identifying patterns in large volumes of text, researchers have identified several features that appear much more frequently in legal documents than in other types of writing. . As an example, they found that legal documents included many instances of non-standard capitalization, such as using all caps. This is legally required in certain types of legal documents to make certain provisions more visible. Legal writing also uses the passive voice significantly more, the researchers found.
When the researchers asked non-lawyers to read either legal documents or documents in which certain features of the text were changed without changing the meaning, they found that the passive voice and non-standard capitalization did not make the documents more difficult to understand.
The biggest culprit, they found, was the integration at the center. In this type of construction, a writer introduces the subject of a sentence, then inserts a definition of the subject, and then continues with the sentence. In their paper, the researchers included this phrase, with a long definition in parentheses, as an example:
“In the event that any payment or benefit by the Company (all such payments and benefits, including payments and benefits under Section 3(a) hereof, being hereinafter referred to as the “Total Payments”), would be subject to excise tax, then cash severance pay will be reduced.”
The document offers this as a more understandable alternative, with the separate definition:
“In the event that any Company payment or benefit is subject to excise tax, cash severance payments will be reduced. All Company payments and benefits shall hereinafter be referred to as the “Total Payments”. includes payments and benefits under Section 3(a) hereof.”
The researchers found that when they tested people on their ability to understand and remember the meaning of a legal text, their performance improved the most when the structures embedded in the center were replaced with simpler sentences, with separately defined terms.
“Using center-embedded clauses is standard writing practice in legal documents, and it makes the text very difficult to understand. It’s memory-intensive for anyone, including lawyers,” says Gibson. . “It’s something you could change and not affect the meaning in any way, but improve the transmission of the meaning.”
Another feature that contributed to the incomprehensibility of legal documents was the use of uncommon words such as “tenant” and “lessor”. Researchers found that replacing these words with more common alternatives such as “tenant” and “owner” improved readers’ ability to understand and remember the meaning of what they read.
“We found more words that could have been simplified in a legal text than in any other genre we looked at, including an academic text,” Martinez says.
Plea for clearer language
One argument legal theorists have made for why legal documents are written the way they are is that language must be complex in order to unambiguously convey the meaning of complex related concepts. However, MIT researchers believe this is not true, as they have found that many jargon terms used in legal documents can be replaced with more common words without changing their meaning, and the clauses embedded in the center can also be replaced by non-embedded clauses. give rise to the same meaning.
Another possibility raised by the MIT researchers is that lawyers don’t want to change the way they write, either because it’s what they’re used to or because they want their documents to look like ” professionals” and are taken more seriously by their colleagues and clients. .
Efforts to write legal documents in plainer language date back to at least the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon declared that federal regulations should be written in “plain terms.” However, another study by Martinez, Mollica, and Gibson, as yet unpublished, suggests that legal language has changed very little since that time. The researchers hope their Cognition study, which highlights the specific aspects of legal language that make it more difficult to understand, will help inspire those who write legal documents to make a greater effort to improve the clarity of their documents.
“It’s the first time someone’s been able to say, this is what makes legal language hard to understand. Before, they were just speculating, and maybe that’s why it didn’t changed,” Gibson said. “If people know what makes it difficult to understand, then maybe they can work to fix it.”
Making legal documents easier to understand could help anyone who needs to read such documents, but would have the most benefit for people who are unable to hire lawyers to help them, the researchers say.
“It’s something that’s especially important for those who can’t afford a lawyer to help them understand the law,” Martinez said. “If you can’t afford to hire a lawyer, being able to read the documents for yourself will help you better understand your rights.”
This work was partially supported by research funds from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.