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The ‘How’ vs. the ‘What’ in Plain Language

In my last post, “The Potential for Reducing Claims with Plain Language”, I noted that poor communication is a leading cause of professional liability claims against lawyers. Convoluted client letters and emails may lead to clients making decisions on matters they don’t fully understand. A plain language approach offers the potential for reducing claims risk for lawyers and their clients in addition to making the law and legal processes more comprehensible for self-represented litigants. Fortunately, a plain language approach in legal training and an increased emphasis on plain language legal writing, including judicial decisions, is underway.

But has there been enough consideration of the importance of how we present information to clients to improve comprehension and decrease needless miscommunication? That is, do we need to rethink providing information to clients in standard written format only? And if the written format is still effective, how can we further improve upon the plain language approach?

Two recent developments sparked my interest:

  1. A recent Saskatchewan study published by the Centre for Research, Evaluation, and Action Towards Equal Justice (CREATE Justice) and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice. “Effectively Communicating Legal Information to Newcomers in Saskatchewan[i]” evaluated which formats of legal information are most effective for newcomers. This included presenting information on renter’s rights in an infographic, video and plain language written summary to determine which format was most effective in conveying the information.
  2. My role as a Legal Research and Writing Assessor with CPLED. The course emphasizes a plain language approach for students, particularly in their communications with clients. For example, students are provided with tips on using easier to read font, margin size, white space, highlighting of text and a general plain language approach for drafting opinion letters.

The Saskatchewan study found that there was no significant difference in the amount participants learned or in other dimensions of effectiveness such as understanding or knowledge gain. This suggests that the content of the resources mattered more than the format in which the content was communicated. Moving from purely written communications with clients might be unnecessary and frankly impractical.

For my next question, deeper inquiry on how to most effectively present materials in a way that boosts comprehension may be warranted, starting with font. As noted in the article “How Fonts Affect Learning and Memory[ii]”:

Fonts play a significant role in the cognitive processes that transpire while we read. A font’s impact on the way you learn and retain information might be hard to notice consciously, but your brain is certainly tuned in.

Common traditional fonts for legal documents include the classic Times New Roman for its traditional appearance and ease of readability. The Supreme Court of Canada and other Courts also mandate the use of Times New Roman or comparable font.[iii] Serif fonts, such as Times New Roman, are generally recommended because as the CPLED materials note “Serif typefaces are easier to read because they have tiny lines on the ends of the letters that catch the eye”.

However, the article quoted above suggests that more difficult to read fonts may be better for retaining information compared to the easier to read fonts like Arial or Times New Roman. Studies have shown that participants recalled more information from material they read when it was presented in a font that was difficult to read.

More quantitative study is required to determine the impact of font on effectively communicating with clients. Part of determining how best to present written materials is determining what we are aiming to achieve. We want clients to be able to read and comprehend what we are telling them, but how long do they need to retain the information and how deep of an understanding is needed to make informed decisions and/or avoid claims? Whether the goal is long-term retention of materials and ‘real learning’ through incorporating different fonts or other presentation strategies is yet to be determined.

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[i] CREATE Justice and Government of Saskatchewan, “Effectively Communicating Legal Information to Newcomers in Saskatchewan” (2023), online: [https://law.usask.ca/createjustice/documents/evaluation-report_final.pdf].

[ii] Carla Degado, “How Fonts Affect Learning and Memory” (2021), online: <Discover magazine> [https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/how-fonts-affect-learning-and-memory].

[iii] See for example, the Supreme Court of Canada, “Guidelines for Preparing Documents to be filed with the Supreme Court of Canada”.

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