Professor helps students avoid legal jargon

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Do clients prefer plain language over legalese?

Christopher Trudeau, an associate professor at Cooley Law School in Lansing where he teaches Research & Writing and administers the Scholarly Writing program, put that premise to the test after being awarded a research grant last year from the Legal Writing Institute (LWI), the Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD), and Lexis/Nexis.

He was one of seven recipients selected from 21 applicants.

“While a lot has been written about judges’ preferences in legal writing, very little research has been done on client preferences in legal writing,” he says. “Ultimately, as attorneys, we’re serving our clients.

Our goal is to explain legal options in a way they can understand, not in a way that makes them feel confused or unsure about their legal affairs.”

Trudeau’s study, involving a survey of more than 1,000 members of the public, helped measure several unanswered questions: to what degree does the public prefer plain language over traditional legal language? How do people react when they see complicated legal language they do not understand? How often will people look up these complicated terms? Have they ever been so frustrated by such language that they quit reading a document?

After analyzing the 376 responses to his survey, Trudeau had his results — the public prefers clear, understandable communication. His article, “The Public Speaks: An Empirical Study of Legal Communication,” will be published in the Scribes Journal of Legal Writing in early 2012.

A working draft can be found at ssrn.com/abstract=1843415.

“All lawyers — indeed, all people — should carefully consider their audience when they are drafting a written document,” he says. “Far too often lawyers do what they see has been done in the past because they’re afraid of rocking the boat. Or, more likely, they’re insecure about their own abilities, so they want to ‘sound like a lawyer.’”

“But much of what’s been done in the past isn’t easily understandable and makes lawyers sound out of touch with society. So it’s time we consider our words carefully and that we write in a way that is understandable to most audiences — particularly clients, who employ us.”

Trudeau teaches where he once was a student, earning his law degree summa cum laude from Cooley.

He won the James E. Burns Memorial Award for earning the highest grade point average in his class, won the State Bar of Michigan Negligence Award, earned Certificates of Merit in 17 of his classes, and served on the Cooley Law Review.

“It seems like I’ve always understood how the law affects the social fabric of society. When I was growing up, I wanted to be on the frontlines, so I could play a small role in influencing the law,” he says.

Before joining the Cooley staff, he was a labor and employment attorney at Plunkett & Cooney, P.C., in Bloomfield Hills, where a large part of his practice was focused on assisting institutional clients in defending against employment discrimination claims, as well as issues associated with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Trudeau joined the full-time faculty at Cooley in 2005, after serving as a visiting professor in Research & Writing, and an adjunct professor of Pre-Trial Practice.

“Cooley is a wonderful place to teach,” he says. “In the business world, there’s been a lot of talk about business incubators that help small businesses grow. Cooley is like an incubator for academia. The administration and the fellow faculty are so supportive that it’s the ideal environment to develop new ideas.”

In Research & Writing, Trudeau teaches first-year law students to solve legal problems, teaching them to take clients’ situations, analyze them critically, research the law that relates to the situations, and convey that message to courts or clients in a coherent manner.

“I focus many of my efforts on teaching legal analysis — teaching students how to spot specific legal or factual issues that arise when assessing a client’s claim,” he says. “I really enjoy teaching students how to problem solve. That’s what lawyers do every day, so being able to teach students how to research an issue, analyze an issue, and explain that issue is very rewarding.”

In addition to teaching, Trudeau has served as the faculty advisor for both of Cooley’s scholarly publications — the Thomas M. Cooley Law Review and the Thomas M. Cooley Journal of Practical & Clinical Law. Additionally, he has published an article on labor law, “The Aftermath of BE&K v. NLRB: When May an Employer Challenge the Legality of Union Practices?”

Outside of academia, Trudeau, who earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Michigan State University, is dedicated to public service.

In 2007, he won the Capital Area United Way Volunteer of the Year Award for his pro bono service at Cristo Rey Community Center in Lansing.

Since the program’s inception, he represented more than 150 clients in numerous legal matters, such as divorce and child custody, landlord/tenant, consumer protection, and estate planning.

“I’ve used this program to train Cooley students to become ethical, competent lawyers,” he says. “Through this program, I was able to show students how to interview clients, how to draft documents, and how to research issues that arise for actual clients.”

In his free time, this Bay City native is an “ultra runner” and has run three ultra marathons — races longer than a marathon — and eight marathons.

“All that time running on the roads and trails gives my brain a lot of time to think up and plan new ideas. It’s a very useful hobby for those in academia,” he says.
 

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