Interpretation

When I got home from errands the other day, my sweetheart told me he’d spent the morning reading the regulations dealing with California’s building code and energy efficiency.

I commiserated with him. I’ve spent a lot of time reading regulations myself. They include a lot of language that says something like “except when Section R Subsection 4 part 26 applies.”

It happens that he’s a professional engineer who knows quite a lot about energy efficiency, especially when it comes to dealing with hot water, and has read enough regulations to have some grasp of how they work. So he probably was able to understand what he needed to find out.

I have a law degree, which makes it marginally easier to read regulations. That is, I understand legalese and I also know that even when a regulation says something like “A always applies” that may not be correct. In the first place, regulations are governed by the statute that authorized an agency to make them and also by court decisions that interpret that statute and the regulations.

Secondly — and it’s this that makes it hard work for me to understand regulations — you need to understand the subject under regulation as well as how regulations work to truly get what they do.

Back when I worked as a legal reporter, I sometimes had to write stories about environmental regulation, such as the requirements for a superfund site or for abatement of hazardous waste. Just reading the regulations or even the statute was not enough to tell me what was going on.

I managed to get knowledgeable enough on that subject to report on it (though I can’t remember all the ins and outs now), but don’t ask me to explain any IRS regulations or statutes. I only know enough to know that what I think it says is probably wrong.

Both state and federal regulations (and probably even local ones) are published and available to the public, with the intention of making how government works “transparent.” So are the minutes of city council meetings and all other kinds of government activity. But it takes a lot of time and effort to become able to truly understand what they mean.

And it’s not just government regulations and reports that are difficult to comprehend. The New York Times did a recent interactive piece about various company’s privacy policies that looked at both the time it took to read them and how comprehensible they were.

Some of them were written in language so difficult they could only be read by someone with a high level professional degree — which probably means they were written by lawyers for lawyers and incomprehensible to anyone else. A few were written in basic English and could, in fact, be read quickly and understood by almost everyone.

Of course, no one reads privacy policies. Back in my youth, with my law degree fresh in hand, I read every word of every contract I ever signed. Even in the early days of the internet, I tried to read things before I clicked yes. Now I just mark the box and download like everyone else, which mean we’re subject to rules we’d never agree to if we had a choice.

It’s either click and download or forego the software/movie/hotel booking/whatever it is that you want to get. You don’t get any chance to argue over the terms, even if you can understand them. And the odds of you understanding them are small.

It occurs to me that there’s an opening for a new profession here: interpreter of regulatory and contract language. Now lawyers do that, but they do it in specific circumstances such as contract negotiation and litigation. In some cases, reporters do it, but their approach is hodge-podge. They do it when something comes to their attention — like the privacy policies — but they don’t do it for everything.

What we need are people who are skilled enough to parse both the legalese and the underlying subject matter, and we need them to stay on top of the ever-growing regulations and contracts.

They should be generalists with the capacity to educate themselves quickly on the underlying subject, whether it’s electrical wires or toxic chemicals, and also aware of how to interpret legal language. They also need to know how to simplify all of it without losing something important.

Imagine how wonderful it would be if you could look up the rules for something and find a plain description of what they mean. You might still need to cite Section R Subsection 4 part 26, but you’d know what it really said.

Not to mention how wonderful it would be to have some idea of what those click through policies mean. Though I confess that wouldn’t be a substitute for what I’d really like, which is a meaningful opportunity to negotiate terms with people who are selling you something. It’s really not fair to have everything be take it or leave it.

But I’m willing to start with understanding what I’m agreeing to.

We can’t rely on the companies that come up with the policies or the officials who write the regulations to do this interpretation. It needs to be done by someone outside of those places, someone with no interest in obfuscation, someone who understands the system they’re writing about but who is not part of it.

Mind you, I don’t want to do the job. I’ve done enough of it in my time. But it would be a great deal more useful to society than, say, coming up with reasons why someone’s health insurance doesn’t cover the treatment they need.

Maybe if we get universal health care in the US, we can retrain all those unnecessary insurance company people to become interpreters of regulations and contracts.

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Interpretation — 4 Comments

  1. My sister, who’s an attorney, spent a while working on a project in Texas that aimed to translate legal material into plain English for the layperson. Like taking contracts that talk about “the PROPRIETOR” and “the CUSTOMER” or whatever (or worse yet, “the party of the first part” and “the party of the second part”) and rephrase it to “you agree to do X; they agree to do Y.” The original, legalese version still existed, of course, and I believe was the one that was legally binding — because in many cases, all that verbiage exists because it’s necessary to close loopholes — but the plain-language version made it much easier for people to know what they were signing.

    • That’s what we need if we’re going to get full transparency. The Sustainable Economies Law Center here in Oakland has a system for creating bylaws that involves all the people affected and produces legally binding ones with cartoons (and online to boot), but they’re unique and wonderful and too many other lawyers can’t start a sentence without the word “pursuant”.

  2. I know people employed by clinics who do nothing but interpret insurance policies and benefits and explain them in plain language (whatever language most needed at that location) to the patient or caregiver. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are paid better than the nurses.

    • I know my dentist in DC employed a person whose primary job was to figure out what insurance covered and to call the insurance companies and work things out. Though it seems to me that mostly she explained whether something was covered or not. Which is what pharmacists seem to end up doing most of the time (which must really drive them crazy, since that’s not what they went to pharmacy school for).

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