Science, lawyers, and linguistics meet: MIT studies how lawyers write legalese

Contracts and deeds are infamously complex for non-lawyers to comprehend. A new study by MIT cognitive scientists has uncovered why these paperwork are frequently so difficult to understand.


Researchers from MIT discovered that lawyers have a knack for incorporating lengthy descriptions in the midst of sentences in contrast to other kinds of writing. Linguists have initially shown that such structure, termed as "center-embedding," finds documents more challenging to read.

How lawyers write.

While center-embedding had the greatest impact on comprehension, the MIT study discovered that unrequired jargon also plays a role.


“It’s not a secret that legal language is very hard to understand. It’s borderline incomprehensible a lot of the time,” says Edward Gibson, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and the senior author of the new paper published in the journal Cognition. “In this study, we’re documenting in detail what the problem is.”


The authors reckon that their observations will raise awareness of the problem and spur push to help legal documents more understandable to the public.


“Making legal language more straightforward would help people understand their rights and obligations better, and therefore be less susceptible to being unnecessarily punished or not being able to benefit from their entitled rights,” says Eric Martinez.


Martinez is the study's lead author, and it is published in the journal Cognition. The paper also includes Frank Mollica, a former visiting researcher at MIT who is now a lecturer in computational cognitive science at the University of Edinburgh.


Martinez, Mollica, and Gibson sought to explore why legal documents, like terms of service agreements, mortgage documents, and other types of contracts, are so difficult to comprehend. Initially, they evaluated a wide range of legal contracts to other writing styles, such as screenplays, newspaper articles, and academic papers.


The research discovered multiple characteristics that appear more frequently in legal documents than in other types of writing utilizing a text analysis tool that can recognize patterns in large amounts of text. The researchers also discovered that the passive voice is used far more frequently in legal writing.


The most serious offender, they discovered, was center-embedding. An author utilizes this method of writing to convey the subject of a sentence, then adds a definition of the subject, and then proceeds with the sentence.


When the researchers examined people's capacity to comprehend and remember the definition of a legal text, they discovered that when the center-embedded structures were changed with more simpler phrases with terms explained independently, their performance improved most.


“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,” Gibson says. “This is something you could change and not affect the meaning in any way, but improve the transmission of the meaning.”


Use of infrequent words like "lessee" and "lessor" also attributed to the confusion of legal documents. The research showed that substituting these with more prevalent terms like "tenant" and "landlord" facilitated readers' understanding and recall of what they had read.


“We found more words that could have been simplified in legal text than in any other genre that we looked at, including academic text,” Martinez says.


One significant findings by legal theorists for why legal documents are recorded in this manner is that the language must be detailed in conveying the definition of complicated related concepts unambiguously. The MIT researchers, on the other hand, contend it is not the case seeing as they discovered that much of the jargony words use for legal papers can be changed with more basic words without altering the meaning, and that center-embedded clauses can be modified by non-embedded clauses to produce the same meaning.

Study on who lawyers write legalese.

Another cause raised by the MIT researchers is that lawyers are reluctant to change their writing style, either because it is what they are used to or because they want their papers to appear "professional" and be held to a higher standard by their clients and colleagues.


The authors hope that their Cognition study, which identifies essential characteristics of legal terms that render it confusing to read, will motivate others who write legal documentations to greater improve the clarity of writing.


Providing legal documents comprehensible could aid anyone who needs to read them, but the researchers believe it would be most beneficial to those who cannot afford to hire lawyers to assist them.


“This is something that is especially important for those who are not able to afford legal counsel to help them understand the law,” Martinez says. “If you can’t afford to hire an attorney, then being able to read the documents on your own will better equip you to understand your rights.”

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