Speaking plainly about what we do

My post the other day got me thinking about how lawyers explain what they do to clients. I realised that we, as lawyers, have this tendency to speak in terms of legal disciplines and categories rather than in terms of what we can do for clients in real terms. We don’t even use standard legal categories either. A typical law firm will explain that its many lawyers practice:

  • contract law;
  • banking and finance law;
  • employment law;
  • intellectual property law;
  • technology law; etc

As much as we, the lawyers, may think this is a pretty clear indication of what we can do for our clients, I wonder how many of our clients wake up and say the following to themselves:

“Hmm, I need a lawyer who can handle a technology law thing with a little contract law and an element of employment law for that project …”

I don’t imagine that is how many of our clients conceptualise their legal requirements. Instead I can see a client thinking about her requirements in more practical terms. She may be working on an advertising campaign or about to sign a lease agreement and needs a lawyer to prepare the documents necessary to make that possible or even review an existing set of documents and advise her about their adequacy.


There is a disconnect between how lawyers think and talk and how our clients think and talk (unless, of course, our clients are former lawyers in which case we simply speak different dialects). We, the lawyers, need to speak using less jargon and legalese if we have any hopes of connecting with our clients in real terms. A good place to start is the “what we do” pages on our websites. I think dealing with lawyers can be an intimidating enough prospect and still having to decipher what “what we do” page is just a frustrating experience.

When I looked at how we describe what we do I saw some of the same language issues. I then started thinking that a better way to describe what we do is to approach the question from a client’s perspective. Two analogies for legal services came to mind: building a house and developing a software application. Creating a solid legal framework is a little like building a house. As lawyers, we incorporate a number of features into an agreement or policy document that should give a client the equivalent of a solid foundation, four walls and a roof. We also furnish that house and even add a coat of paint. The end result is a legal framework that is functional and aesthetically pleasing. In other words, it accurately describes the legal relationship it is intended to govern and it is intelligible.

In software terms, the law is a bit like a programming language. To borrow from Professor Lawrence Lessig’s book title (I still need to read Code 2.0 myself so don’t take this as indicative of what the book is about), the law is code and the language we use can be used to create a variety of legal frameworks, both simple and complex. The end result is a sort of legal software application which should achieve a result or set of results.

Whether we, the lawyers, use a construction, software development or other analogy, legal services and how those services are described should be framed in more helpful terms if they are to be relevant to clients. Exactly how we present what can be a dizzying array of legal services in plain terms is a challenge and an ongoing one at that. As a starting point, take a look at how we are doing it at this firm. I edited our “Services” page this morning.

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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