Writing About the Law for the Average Reader: Assumptions and Myths
The average person doesn’t know much about the law, and what they think they know is often wrong. When experts in a field write for lay audiences, or for those who don’t have a similar background or expertise, there’s a lot that they can miss. The old adage of “know your audience” is something you must understand and apply if you want to be effective.
When lawyers write, they usually write for other lawyers. Whether it’s a brief, a motion, and appeal, or anything else, the audience they’re writing for has years of legal education and experience. You don’t have to explain what “de novo” means to an appellate court judge, or tell your colleagues what an affidavit is.
But if you’re writing readers who don’t have any practical experience with the law, you’ll lose them in the first few sentences if you are unable to forget what you’ve learned when you write for lawyers.
Any expert, whether it’s a lawyer who has been practicing for years or a mechanic who has spent his life around cars, can have a difficult time when they try to explain their work to people outside of their field. After all, they have built a pyramid of knowledge and spend their day-to-day atop it, interacting with those who share that same knowledge base.
When you write about the law for lay readers, however, you must be able to recognize that they don’t have that base. They’re more like you were before you went to law school, or before you went to college. Do you even remember who you were then? Can you remember how much you didn’t know about the law, or how much if what you thought you knew was actually wrong?
It’s not really possible to completely divest yourself of all your legal training and knowledge, but if you want to write for a lay audience, you must be able to take that step back.
Several months ago, I spoke to a group of people about the role of a criminal defense attorney. As part of the discussion, I had to explain the difference between civil and criminal law and why it’s important. Needless to say, the group to which I was speaking was not a group of lawyers, judges, or legal experts. My audience was a group of mystery readers and writers who wanted to know more about criminal defense attorneys and what goes in the criminal justice system. To them, the criminal justice system was not something they ever studied or experienced, but was only something they’d heard about, seen on TV or in movies, or read about in mysteries.
This is the type audience I picture when I write for lay readers. I picture people who, though they may have a distinct idea of what the law is, don’t know much at all. They’re not first-year law students. They’re not “pre-law” majors who like to think of themselves as legal experts. They’re babes in the woods who need a guide, and need to be taught why what they believe is not only wrong, but who will baulk at being taught the truth if you don’t speak to them in the right way.
This inevitably leads to the question of how you’re supposed to do this. How, exactly, do you explain what de novo review is to an audience that doesn’t understand the difference between civil and criminal law, or the difference between a trial and an appeal?
Good question. It’s one I think about a lot, and I’ll be writing about it in a couple of weeks. Of course, if you have any thoughts, feel free to let me know.