FuzzyLaw Mini-article

3 Jun 2014

What's on a lawyer's mind?

In May last year, we at Peppercorn (a place for making legal docs online) ran a small experiment that we called What’s on a lawyer’s mind.

The reasons behind the experiment

We had 2 things in mind.

The first was finding an optimal taxonomy for our website. How should we group contracts? Should we follow traditional legal categories (i.e. employment, intellectual property etc..) or go for something different?

The second was proving a little curiosity of us: are lawyers going to reply differently from non lawyers?

We decided to ask people directly and run a short survey, in the form of a Card Sorting. We basically asked people to sort a list of contracts into groups and give each group a name.

The experiment took place from May 29 to June 15, 2013. We run 3 different Card Sorting for English, French and Italian speaking lawyers and non lawyers.

The results

We got 273 usable replies. The basis was wide enough to collect some interesting insights.

The methodology we used was not scientifically rigorous though. The number of participants who were lawyers (98) differed from the number of non lawyers (175) and so the number of participants speaking Italian (23), English (37) and French (213). However, we got some insights I’d like to share with you here (for a more detailed analysis, we published a full report with graphs on our blog blog.peppercorn.it, also with rough data you can play with).

3 large categories are used only by non lawyers: Contrats, Accords and Conventions. These categories are very broad and general and they were chosen by almost the 13% of non lawyers. Why? Well, apparently because non lawyers are not specialist in the legal field. They use broad categories because the differences in types of contracts (i.e. sale contract, franchising contract) are not so relevant. In the words of Donna Spencer, the more people know about a subject, the more their thinking level becomes detailed. In the case of non lawyers, it seems to be not very detailed.

On the other hand I was expecting, when launching the experiment, that non lawyers would have grouped items more freely. I was expecting, for instance, totally creative or user centered categories such as “my stuff”, “accountant”, “work”, “family”. I was naive. Indeed, how can a non lawyer categorize contracts when he has no acquaintance with those? You use your own labels when things belong to your everyday life. It’s not the case for contracts, probably. That’s why non lawyers, when did not use general categories (i.e. contracts), put quite typical labels like “IP”, “sale”, “finance”, “IT” etc.

I was surprised of how precisely non legal users put financial contracts into the Finance category, even if the contract itself didn’t give any hint in its name (“Financial contracts” were Bill of exchange, Promissory note, Guarantee, Letter of credit, Patronage Letter, Investment agreement, Shares purchase agreement). Also the majority of non legal users correctly put the Software agreements (Software programming agreement with copyright transfer, Software programming agreement with license, SaaS programming agreement with copyright transfer, SaaS programming agreement with license) into the Intellectual Property category. Although other categories for these contracts were also used (like Software, tech, IT), I was surprised that non legal users knew and used the word “Intellectual Property” when dealing with license and copyright.I I thought it was totally a legal exotism.

To conclude, a wider view on the experiment we run. To understand how people use legal language is the first step to diminish the divide between citizens and the legal world. Generally people hate legalese and don’t understand legal parlance, which contributes to alienate them from the Law and the political life. But hey, the Law belongs to the people! Fuzzy Law is going in the same direction, studying citizens’ understanding of legal terms and I wanted to provide some food for thought here. The rough data coming from the Card Sorting is published here blog.peppercorn.it/whats-lawyers-mind-results, if someone wants to play with it.

Serena Manzoli www.serenamanzoli.com


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