I always marvel at how utterly random life is. Here is the answer to the question ‘How did you become a plain language lawyer?’

The utter randomness

🎈My father is a lexicographer who specialised in document design and how to measure the ‘usability’ of business communication. I would grow up to love words and writing, almost against my will. If there is anything more random than the parents you are born to, let me know.

The early years

🎈 I decided that I wanted to become a journalist, but you had to do an undergraduate degree first. The older brother of my best friend happened to overhear me talking about it. He is an accomplished journalist in South Africa and suggested that I study law. I thought ‘Meh. I haven’t ever even met a lawyer, but LA Law was fun to watch. Why the hell not.’

🎈I can’t say that I enjoyed law and my grades were average at best. BUT, in my third year I fell in love with contract law. I had never seen an actual contract in my life, but whatever.

🎈My love for contract law had turned into an obsession and I decide that I want to become a lawyer. I study my ass off and I get into a big commercial law firm thanks to an endorsement of my Old Contract Law Professor. My crazy matched the crazy of a partner in the insurance litigation team. I get to write a million opinions for insurers about whether they should pay or reject claims. I notice that very often the insured would have complied with the insurance policy, had they understood a bloomin’ word of it.

🎈 I decide to write a rather flimsy article about unfair contract terms and discover a draft Bill called the Consumer Protection Bill. It has provisions against unfair contract terms and requires that plain language must be used in consumer contracts.

Suddenly, things get interesting

🎈Surprise! In the same month as my article, the Consumer Protection Bill becomes and Act. It caught everybody by surprise and nobody in our firm had written about it. The firm says, ‘Tag, you’re it’.*

🎈I realise immediately that I know fuck-all about consumer law. I resign from the firm and I enrol for an LLM with the South African OG of unfair contract terms, Prof Tjakie Naudé. While I do my LLM we write a book, some chapters, and articles together on consumer and contract law.

🎈 Unbeknown to me, my alma mater appoints a very forward-thinking General Counsel who decides that student contracts should be understandable to students. The mind boggles. He goes to the law faculty and asks my old contract law professor if he knows a lawyer who specialises in contract and consumer law. My old professor refers him to me.

🎈We have our first consultation where I ‘faked it until I made it’ and got my first solo client. Novcon is born.

🎈I immediately feel like the dog that caught the bus and went to my dad. He introduces me to his team and we work together on projects for the next couple of years. I meet Liezl van Zyl and learn about the science and methods of plain language and information design. We start Hey Plain Jane and the rest, as they say, is history.

Why am I thinking about this?

ISO – International Organization for Standardization recently published the first Plain Language Standard. It was developed by giants in the field and is awesome (in the original meaning of the word). What this means for lawyers and judges is that every time a regulation requires plain language (and there are many in South Africa)** there is now an auditable standard against which the communication can be measured to see whether it is in plain language. A.W.E.S.O.M.E.

If you are in any doubt about whether this is a good (as in ethical) thing, see this incredible talk by Sandra Fisher-Martins called ‘The right to understand’. Without plain language, important constitutional rights like dignity, autonomy and access to healthcare, education and justice become unattainable. As Sandra says, it is Information Apartheid.

My utterly random journey always reminds me of something the modern-day spiritual leader, Jiddy Krishnamurti said (and which is tattoo’d on my arm): “Do you want to know what my secret is? You see, I don’t mind what happens.”***


* This also got me into #dataprivacy and #POPIA, but that is a backstory for another day.
** The Consumer Protection Act, Treating Customers Fairly Principles, the National Credit Act, POPIA and, thanks to some ingenious drafting in the CPA, any regulation that requires that a consumer must be given notice of something.
*** Plain language also led me to the realisation that copying and pasting legalese day in and day out is one of the reasons why lawyers are so unhappy. Another story, for another day, but that is how Rehabilitated Lawyer was born.

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