Making legalese accessible: how to create friendlier terms of service and privacy policies

Get some simple tips on turning dense legalese into easy reading for your next terms of use and privacy policy updates.

John Moore Williams
June 14, 2018
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Nobody likes reading legalese. (Well, maybe a few lawyers do.) But for the rest of us, reading legal language makes for a laborious slog through tangled syntax, thorny diction, and periodic passages of rightfully maligned ALL CAPS. Which keeps the vast majority of us from reading terms and policies that are legally binding and therefore could bite us in the proverbial back ends.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Several businesses — ourselves included — have taken it upon themselves to publish plain-language parallel documents that help unravel the awfulness and make legalese human-readable.

Having done it myself more than a few times now, I thought I’d share a few tips on how I create approachable parallel texts. Think of it as a Cliff’s Notes for legalese.

Note: this is not a guide to creating legal policies. I am not a lawyer, and none of this should be considered legal advice. The best way to create legally sound policies and terms is to — wait for it — work with a lawyer.

1. Make it clear what you’re doing with your plain-language section

We’re a long way from getting all the world’s legal documents written in plain language, but we can provide natural-language versions that serve as guides to the legal verbiage. So right at the top of you document, make it clear that you’re providing a plain-English version, and that it should be understood as an aid only. That both introduces readers to the purpose of your sidebar / commentary, and makes it clear how they should think about this supplementary content and its relation to the main body.

Here’s what we say:

In these boxes, you’ll find our plain-English version of the policy. It isn’t legally binding, so please use it only as an aid.

Just keep in mind that this doesn’t relieve you of the burden of distilling the most important points into easily understood summaries. Because much of your audience will rely on these bits for their day-to-day usage.

Pro tip: don’t forget that content display differs on mobile!

If your site’s responsive — and gee, do I hope it is — keep in mind that your plain-English sidebar may display in different ways on different devices. In our fresh-from-the-legal-eagles draft, the plain-English part referred to left and right columns. Problematic since the two columns become one on mobile! Hence, “these boxes.”

Pinterest skips the expectation-setting intro, instead leading into the plain-English with “More simply put.”

2. Untangle the syntax

Two things make legal language tough: unfamiliar jargon, and the thorny sentence construction. So simplifying sentences to more basic subject-verb-object structures is a great place to start. Ruthlessly insert periods where commas and semicolons once prevailed. Use parentheses and dashes to make conversational asides. Remove non-essential (aka, descriptive) clauses to get down to the meat of the matter.

Here’s an example:

Legal language

By accessing and using the Service, you signify your acceptance to the terms of this Policy. If you do not agree with or you are not comfortable with any aspect of this Policy, our Global Policy or the Terms of Service, you should immediately discontinue access or use of our Services.

Plain language

As per usual with these sorts of things, your use of Webflow means you agree to these policies and terms. If you don’t agree, you shouldn’t use our service.

You can see why the legal team would want to be really specific (“if you do not agree with or you are not comfortable with any aspects”), but a little generalization goes a long way in making things more readable.

3. Add context as needed

Lawyers don’t typically try to modulate your perception of what they’re saying in their writing. If that statement’s making you scratch your head, look at the above example.

In the plain-English version, you’ll notice that I actually added some words — even though I’m usually trying to ruthlessly cut down the word count when I work with legal language.

Why? Because I want you to realize that this sort of wrinkle in terms and policy statements is absolutely normal. It serves as a subtle reminder that dozens of other companies do this too — and that you have the same right to quit using any of our tools if you disagree.

4. Use the simplest, truest words

As mentioned above, legalese is often difficult to read because of the word choices lawyers make. So identify all the words that have simpler equivalents and don’t unduly alter the meaning, and use those instead.

And I don’t just mean the dispute resolution mechanisms and hereinafters. I also mean the more pedestrian yet obscure terms, like obtain, as well as the unnecessarily complex phrasings.

Here’s an example:

We always obtain the customers’ consent prior to posting their names along with their testimonials.

If I’m translating that line, it becomes:

We always get permission to use customers’ names in their testimonials.

Obtain becomes get. Consent becomes permission. Along with becomes in or just with.

Why does consent become permission, you ask? After all, the latter is longer. Two reasons:

  1. Tone and context: the world is rife with vital discussions about consent these days, and those discussions have a way of dominating one’s thoughts when that word crops up.
  2. Familiarity: We all remember permission slips from our school days, right? That association makes the tonality of permission far, far lighter than that of consent. Tone arises largely from usage and association.

5. Use examples!

While it can be tough to understand legal language in the abstract, you can often clarify things by providing everyday examples.

For example: Personal Information may seem obscure and even more sinister than it actually is. Until you realize its real world examples include things like your email address, name, phone number, etc., which you hand out to people, websites, and apps regularly. All scary enough when leaked, of course, but when it comes to fear, the abstract has much more capacity to terrify than the concrete.

6. Sprinkle in some humor — sparingly

In our recent policy update, I capped off a section on cookies and their expiration dates with a simple, probably groan-inducing joke: ‘Cause nobody likes a stale cookie. Even our lawyer laughed!

Humor, like horror, thrives best in the unexpected. That’s what makes punchlines work — at their best, you don’t see them coming. And in the midst of massively imposing blocks of legal mumbo-jumbo, a quick, light joke can serve to briefly relieve the tension, reminding you that, at the end of the day, we’re all just people trying to communicate with people here.

Just be sure to keep it light — and ensure it doesn’t have any legal ramifications.

7. When in doubt, blame it on the lawyers

Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do to make legal language into an at-least passable experience. Sometimes, for instance, lawyers like to use massive passages of ALL CAPS BECAUSE THAT MAKES IT MORE LEGAL SOMEHOW.

Witness this beast:

Passage shown in full for effect.

I couldn’t convince the legal eagles to make this more readable, so I just added the following to our plain-English section:

(Oh, and: sorry for the all-caps. Our lawyers made us do it.)

Because if nothing else unites us, it’s lawyer jokes, am I right?

Note: Given that we’re a design company, with hundreds of thousands of users who care about type, the joke helps reinforce our shared interests. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Wondering if it’s worth your time?

Fair question. There’s no doubt that this can be a labor-intensive effort without a lot in the way of obvious return on investment.

On the other hand, how often do you see people on Twitter referring to your content as “a model of ease-of-understanding”?

(For the record, I understand this might come across as tooting our own horn. If that’s how it feels to you: fair enough. It’s just the strongest proof point I have.)

I hope it happens regularly. I truly do.

But I’m going to go ahead and guess: it’s not often.

But when you do get that kind of response, it can be exactly the kind of differentiation you’ve been looking for:

John Moore Williams

Head of Content Strategy at Webflow. Nice to meet ya. Follow me @JohnAMWill.

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