Contract design: moving beyond plain language

15th July 2019

Let’s start with this idea:

“We should live in a world where contracts are written in accessible language—where potential business partners can sit down over a short lunch without their lawyers and read, truly understand, and feel comfortable signing a contract.”

Sound crazy?

Not if you’re Shawn Burton, general counsel of GE Aviation’s digital-services unit.

Since 2014 his unit has been on a plain-language mission, resulting in a 60% reduction in negotiation time for the contracts converted from their previous versions, which were full of legalese.

Plain-language contracting is not a new idea. Removing “heretofore,” “whereas,” or “forthwith” has been low hanging fruit for years.

Now, contracts are being completely re-designed or even re-imagined in various ways to make them easier to understand.

Legal Design

We’ve now entered an era of ‘legal design’ which represents much more than just plain-language contracting. According to one of the trailblazers in this area – Emma Jelley, the former Head of Google’s UK & Ireland Regional Legal Team:

“Legal Design is a movement to make law more accessible, more usable, and more engaging. Its building blocks are plain language and attractive visuals… all intended to enhance user experience. Legal design embraces but goes beyond technology.”

Technology giants like Google have lead by example, using video explainers in its privacy policy. As have Juro, a design-led contract management platform, with a visual privacy policy that “people actually want to read”.

Contract Visualisation

The use of visual aids and diagrams can be especially useful for business users (e.g. sales people, project and contract managers (especially non-native English speakers)) who are expected to use contracts and comply with them on a day to day basis.

In this experiment, construction lawyer Damian Curran uses PowerPoint to convert a few clauses of the standard form AS4000 Construction Contract into diagrams. In 2017 the International Association of Contract and Commercial Management awarded Shell an innovation award for diagrammatically capturing the transfer of risk and title at delivery in its shipping contracts.

Cartoon Contracts

Contracts are even being re-imaged as comics. From non-disclosure agreements to labour agreements, cartoons are being used for everyday consumers and can be particularly helpful for illiterate users.

But are cartoon contracts binding? According to former Chief Justice of Australia, Robert French, as long as the meaning of the pictures in contracts is clear, they are.

The Future

With the emergence of legal design and the adoption of design thinking more broadly across industries, the future of contracting looks more user friendly: less words, more visual, zero legalese.

To end on a high note, here’s Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce’s version of a simple dispute resolution clause: “If there are any disagreements, my mum will call your mum to sort it out.”

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