What is Legalese and What Businesses Must Know About it

Any business, including small online businesses, should always protect their interest with a legal framework. It is essential to have some rule of law in place to provide a clear and stable structure to the business, regardless of the size of the operations.

A few ways for online businesses to protect their interest is to include terms and conditions and privacy policies on their website. Some may also need to put trademark, patent or copyright notices, as well as warranties or liability disclaimers, especially if they have unique goods or services to offer the public.

But should an online business owner need to put this legal framework in legalese? What are the advantages or disadvantages to this?

What is legalese

What is legalese

Legalese is a specialized language used by most lawyers or those in the legal profession. It's a form of technical writing for contracts, wills, company by-laws, and other legal documents.

Legalese is like a complicated math problem or a medical/scientific report that only the experts can decipher. It is wordy and filled with Latin words and phrases. It may also be grammatically complicated because of its embedded clauses, passive verbs, and long sentences.

Many businesses adopt legalese because it makes a contract or a legal document sound more valid and official. Some businesses also believe that using legalese brings authority and gives their company more weight and credence.

Examples of legalese

A prime example of legalese is this phrase:

In witness whereof, the parties hereunto have set their hands to these presents as a deed on this (day month and year) hereinbefore mentioned.

However, in plain English, this simply means:

Signed on (date specified).

Another example comes from this contract:

Any data, reports, drawings, documents or other things or information provided by (company) to the (provider/consultant/talent) during the performance of services under this Agreement and any reports, drawings or other writings required under the services of this Agreement shall be and remain the sole property of the (company) at all times. The (provider/consultant/talent) shall return or provide to the (company) such documents, etc. by the completion date and before full payment of the compensation herein.

In plain English, this means that the company owns the work that a person has been hired to perform or complete.

Advantage and disadvantage of legalese

Lawyers have been trained to use legalese for centuries, and they are expected to be well-versed in this language. If practiced with care, legalese can be quite effective in eliminating the ambiguities of legal documents.

Different words can be open to different interpretations to different people, thus resulting in consequences that could be problematic. To avoid this, lawyers use legalese and prepare long-winded documents to make sure that every interpretation is covered.

However, legalese has some serious downsides. Despite its lengthy explanations per sentence, legal documents may still be twisted in a costly battle in court.

Why businesses should try to avoid using legalese

Avoid using legalese

For years now, there has been a movement pushing the use of plain English in business dealings or documents. Businessmen should not have to call up their lawyers to interpret an agreement when they are the ones negotiating and closing deals that will benefit their company.

Many business agreements fail to progress because of problems in words used in a contract. In some cases, legal documents filled with legalese can likely be seen as distrustful, especially for those doing business in countries whose first language isn’t English.

In an online business, transparency and honesty are critical for users browsing websites or e-commerce stores. If yours is filled with legal jargon, it’s easy for your online visitors to feel like you’re hiding something with all these big words and terms on your website.

Also, since the majority of online users are not well-versed in legalese like lawyers, then it won’t help to attract new clients or grow your business if the terms and conditions, privacy policies, disclaimers, and copyright notices are filled with the jargon. Using legalese on your website can discourage potential customers or clients from proceeding to navigating your online store.

However, if they do proceed and sign up with your service, it's also possible they may not have clearly understood your legal agreements. A lack of understanding may lead costumers to complain about your business, and you could be hauled in court for it.

For instance, your privacy policy may state in legalese that in order for your business to deliver the goods or services, customers who use your site or app must be willing to provide some details about themselves, such as their email address or full name. Some users sign up without knowing this and then later complain that your website has collected their data without them agreeing to it. They did not realize that it is underscored in your terms and policies because the legal jargon prevented them from carefully understanding how you do your business.

Clear and plain words for website notices

In 2012, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) released a guideline that encouraged businesses, regardless of size, to use clear and plain English for their privacy policy and other website legal notices. While European nations covered this guideline, other countries, including the U.S., have also adopted the same ideas.

Now, it's still possible to put up a binding and well-protected legal notice on your website without putting off your visitors. Use simple sentences in clear and plain language and then italicize, underline or highlight words that you want to be emphasized.

When writing down your website’s legal notice, try to put yourself in the user or customer's place. Consider what they might likely want to see from your website and what you want them to know about your business.

Writing legal notices in clear and plain words are also as challenging as writing in legalese. It still needs to be done with careful thought so that you can ultimately get your message across with authenticity and without confusing your customers.