What is a document review process (and how to do one)

What is a document review process (and how to do one)

9 minuteread

What is a document review process (and how to do one)

9 minuteread

What is a document review process (and how to do one)

Catherine McNally

GatherContent Contributor, Writer
Most content writers are familiar with interviewing subject matter experts or asking them to review their content. If you’re tasked with updating your company website’s terms of service or an end-user agreement for a product, interviewing experts and going through a document review process becomes even more critical.

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For example, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Plain Writing Act in the U.S. make it a requirement to translate legalese into plain language. But doing so without help from your legal and compliance teams is dangerous and puts you and your company at risk.

This is why forging strong relationships with your company’s legal and compliance specialists is important. By collaborating with them, you can ensure your content meets legal requirements and regulations while also being easily understood by your customers.

It’s also extremely helpful to use a tool like GatherContent to manage your document review process. This ensures every stakeholder gets a chance to review and sign off on your document and reduces the chance critical steps could get skipped.

Keep reading to find out how your legal and compliance teams can help you during your document review process, including the best questions to ask them when crafting your content.

What is a document review process?

When creating content such as legal contracts and terms, a document review process means that piece of content goes through stages of review. Each review stage is typically completed by a stakeholder or subject matter expert. In this case, that includes your company’s legal and compliance teams.

The goal of the document review process is not to make creating content tedious. Instead, it’s to ensure the final product is accurate and meets quality standards.

Why is a document review process important?

It’s always risky to create a legal document without a review process in place. This is especially true after the addition of regulations like GDPR and the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA), which made it a requirement for legal content like contracts, notices, and policies to use plain language.

“This was to ensure that customers can read and understand legal agreements given to them by companies before they made a purchase (or opted into allowing cookies),” says Frances Gordon, co-founder of Simplified, a consultancy that trains professionals to meet plain language requirements required by consumer rights laws. “This enables your customers to make informed decisions.”

Good to know: Using images and other visuals can improve the readability of your technical writing.

Despite requirements for plain language, many online contracts are still unreadable for everyday consumers. The site Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (ToS;DR) even goes so far as to claim that “I have read and agree to the terms” is the “biggest lie on the web.”

The site acts as a plain language translator for the terms of service belonging to popular websites like Facebook, Amazon, and PayPal. It also provides a grade for each site’s terms of service, with a better grade signifying a terms-of-service contract that respects consumers’ digital privacy.

DuckDuckGo
Terms of Service; Didn’t Read gave DuckDuckGo an A grade, meaning its terms of service is easy to understand and upholds digital privacy. YouTube, on the other hand, earned a lower grade of E, meaning its terms of service included potential concerns for digital privacy.

After looking at the ToS;DR site, it’s evident most businesses don’t write these policies in a way that’s friendly and understandable for their audience. Further studies support that thought. Visual Capitalist noted that Microsoft’s service agreement would take over an hour to read, while the shortest agreement (Twitter’s) would take 24 minutes.

The Visual Capitalist infographic shows that Microsoft has one of the longest terms of service agreements. It was 15,260 words long and is estimated to take over an hour to read.
A snippet of Visual Capitalist’s infographic comparing how long it would take to read major companies’ service agreements. Microsoft’s agreement was the longest, clocking in at a read time of 1 hour, 3 minutes, and 30 seconds.

Learn more: Watch Frances Gordon’s webinar with GatherContent

How to do a legal document review

As a writer, meeting with different stakeholders—including legal and compliance—is key to conducting a legal document review. This not only helps you maintain the integrity of the document, but ensures it meets the needs and expectations of all stakeholders.

Good to know: To identify additional stakeholders that should be involved in your legal document review process, it’s a good idea to refer to your content governance model. If your company doesn’t have one yet, this content governance model checklist can help your head of content put one together.

Here are the main stages of a legal document review and what’s involved with each step:

1. Meet with your subject matter experts

When writing or rewriting a legal document, your company’s legal team is likely your main source of subject matter experts. It’s a good idea to get them involved early in the document review process so your content meets any specific legal requirements they’re familiar with.

It may even be best to sit down with them before you start writing so you can understand what the contract says first. This step also applies if you’re writing content related to a contract or policy, for example, a customer service message that refers to your company’s cancelation policy.

Questions to ask your legal team

When you meet with your legal team, remember their goal for contracts and policies is to remove legal risk for your company. To dig deeper and develop a better understanding of how the particular legal document or content that refers you’re writing can remove risk, Gordon recommends starting with these questions:

  1. What kind of contract is this? Is it a subscription agreement, short-term insurance agreement, terms of use, or something else? You should also ask whether other contracts are incorporated into this one.
  2. Who is the contract between? Is it a contract between a customer and one single company or a group of companies? You should also understand whether the contract is for consumers or a business, then further define who it’s for. This could be a contract for users of a website, customers who purchased a service, subscribers of a service, and plenty of other possibilities.
  3. What kind of exchange takes place? This is the “nexus” of the contract, and it should describe what the contract parties agree to. For example, the nexus could be, “We are giving access to an app and you are paying a monthly fee for using the app.”
  4. If there has been litigation, ask what litigation has occurred and whether the contract could help mitigate any risk.
  5. When is the contract agreed to? Is it agreed to when the service is used, the website is accessed, or when a button is clicked to give consent?
  6. What are the main risks this contract should protect against? This could include arbitration or class action waivers, for example.

Next, you’ll also want to gather info about the scope of the legal document from your compliance team.

Questions to ask your compliance team

Generally, your compliance department wants to ensure any legal content complies with laws and regulations that promote fairness and transparency. To help ensure your legal documents meet those goals, here are some questions to ask:

  1. What regulations apply to these types of contracts? You should know what kind of contract you’re crafting after speaking with your legal team, but if not, be sure to ask.
  2. Why was this regulation created? Understanding the why behind certain regulations can help you decide the best way to present the information.
  3. Is there anything we need to emphasize according to the regulation? If yes, why and what is the intention behind it? How does emphasizing this protect consumers?
  4. Do any of these regulations impact how we communicate our terms and conditions? For example, a need to use plain language.
  5. Does the existing contract contain everything we need, or is there anything else we need to include? Do we need to rewrite any parts of the existing contract because they risk going against regulations?
  6. Is there a prescribed format or any prescribed content? For example, a prescribed format could be how interest rates are represented, while a prescribed format could be a requirement for a durable medium, enabling the consumer to store information in a way that’s accessible for future reference.

Gordon notes that, for the last question, it’s good to get specific. You should ask if any aspects of the contract need to be emphasized and whether that means you need to use bold, italics, or upper case—or all three styles.

2. Editor review

Next, have your editor review your draft and ensure it’s grammatically correct and well written.

But don’t worry about translating into plain language just yet. You’ll tackle that in the next step with help from your legal specialist.

3. Stakeholder review

At this point, you’ll want to check back in with your legal team for a stakeholder review. While your initial chat gave you info about the foundation and intent of the contract or policy, this chat is intended to help you translate the document into plain language.

Change legalese to plain language

One trick Gordon recommends is to first look at the legal document and circle any words that might be confusing to you or to consumers. After you’ve gone through the whole document, add the circled words to a drafting table like the one below.

A drafting table helps you identify legalese terms and words, such as hereby, and their common use, legal meaning, and whether to keep or replace them.
A drafting table like this one helps you identify whether confusing words or terms have a specific legal meaning or if you can discard or replace them with a better plain language option.

Once you’ve added all the circled words to the drafting table, sit down with your legal and compliance teams to fill in the rest of the info, including:

  • What’s the common use of this word or term, if it has a common use?
  • Does this word or term have a specific legal meaning? If so, what is it?

Then, decide whether to keep, replace, or completely remove the word or term from the document. If you choose to replace it, make sure your compliance and legal specialist agree on the replacement word or term.

It’s also a good idea to use this time to look for the following issues and update them based on the principles of clear writing as shared by the Office of the Federal Register, including:

  • Change passive voice to active voice
  • Replace nominals, or nouns with verbs inside—for example, “give consideration to” becomes “consider”
  • Replace “shall” with “must”
  • Use present tense
  • Be consistent with the words you use

Write out definitions

If you and your legal team decide it’s best to keep some legalese in the document, you can help your customers better understand what it means by adding definitions. This step is also important to tackle alongside your legal specialist to ensure the definition you include matches the legal meaning of the term or phrase.

When writing out your definitions, Gordon recommends considering these four parts:

  1. The term that’s being defined
  2. The verb
  3. The general group that the term belongs to
  4. The unique characteristics that distinguish the term from all others in its group

4. Compliance review

After your legal team signs off on the document and all edits made for plain language, it’s time to pay your compliance team another visit.

Your compliance specialist needs to ensure the contract or policy meets regulations set by the industry, a governing body, or even your own company. These can include:

  • The Plain Writing Act (US.)
  • Industry regulations (for example, Treating Customers Fairly for financial institutions in South Africa)
  • CCPA, California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA), and Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act (VCDPA)
  • GDPR (EU)
  • Consumer Rights Act (UK.)

According to Gordon, these regulations usually require your document to meet the following guidelines:

  • Your customers can explicitly accept your terms, and those terms must be in plain language
  • The terms can’t be too long, but also shouldn’t leave out important information
  • Your terms must pull important information to “the front of the experience”
  • All information must be consistent at all stages of the customer’s experience—for example, you can’t say “fee” in one place and then say “rate” in another
  • Your terms must help your customers make informed decisions

Your compliance team also has plain language regulations in mind and will help you spot any missed opportunities to translate legalese into text that’s easier to understand.

What is a document review checklist?

Also called a document control checklist or a single source of truth, the document review checklist includes items each reviewer should look for. The checklist ensures your legal agreements and policies are consistent, compliant, and meet quality standards.

Your document review checklist should include the following elements:

  • The name of the document or project
  • Document or project sponsors
  • The workflow—what’s the next step, or who’s the next reviewer?
  • Any guidelines the reviewer should follow
  • The intended audience of the document
  • The goals of the document

As far as checklist items for your reviewers to keep an eye out for, these are a great place to start:

  • Correct dates and consistent date formats (for example, 1/12/2023 and 12/1/2023 are the same date but in different formats)
  • Correct references are noted, and links point to the correct page and aren’t broken
  • Correct spelling is used (for example, council versus counsel)
  • Table of contents matches the structure of the document
  • Clear communication and plain language are used
  • Definitions are included where necessary
  • All acronyms are spelled out on first use and an acronym list is included
  • Structure or format matches the correct template, if a template is available
  • Consistent terminology is used

A critical part of producing and updating legal policies and agreements, the document review process involves multiple steps and stakeholders. Each stage of the process helps ensure your document removes risk for your company and meets any requirements set by industry, brand, or government regulations.

On top of that, the document review process helps you as the writer ensure you can safely and accurately translate legalese into clear, easily understandable language.

While all these steps and requirements may seem cumbersome, content production software like GatherContent can help streamline your review process. It acts as your single source of truth, template database, and communication and approval hub. Learn more and start a free trial of GatherContent today.

For example, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Plain Writing Act in the U.S. make it a requirement to translate legalese into plain language. But doing so without help from your legal and compliance teams is dangerous and puts you and your company at risk.

This is why forging strong relationships with your company’s legal and compliance specialists is important. By collaborating with them, you can ensure your content meets legal requirements and regulations while also being easily understood by your customers.

It’s also extremely helpful to use a tool like GatherContent to manage your document review process. This ensures every stakeholder gets a chance to review and sign off on your document and reduces the chance critical steps could get skipped.

Keep reading to find out how your legal and compliance teams can help you during your document review process, including the best questions to ask them when crafting your content.

What is a document review process?

When creating content such as legal contracts and terms, a document review process means that piece of content goes through stages of review. Each review stage is typically completed by a stakeholder or subject matter expert. In this case, that includes your company’s legal and compliance teams.

The goal of the document review process is not to make creating content tedious. Instead, it’s to ensure the final product is accurate and meets quality standards.

Why is a document review process important?

It’s always risky to create a legal document without a review process in place. This is especially true after the addition of regulations like GDPR and the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA), which made it a requirement for legal content like contracts, notices, and policies to use plain language.

“This was to ensure that customers can read and understand legal agreements given to them by companies before they made a purchase (or opted into allowing cookies),” says Frances Gordon, co-founder of Simplified, a consultancy that trains professionals to meet plain language requirements required by consumer rights laws. “This enables your customers to make informed decisions.”

Good to know: Using images and other visuals can improve the readability of your technical writing.

Despite requirements for plain language, many online contracts are still unreadable for everyday consumers. The site Terms of Service; Didn’t Read (ToS;DR) even goes so far as to claim that “I have read and agree to the terms” is the “biggest lie on the web.”

The site acts as a plain language translator for the terms of service belonging to popular websites like Facebook, Amazon, and PayPal. It also provides a grade for each site’s terms of service, with a better grade signifying a terms-of-service contract that respects consumers’ digital privacy.

DuckDuckGo
Terms of Service; Didn’t Read gave DuckDuckGo an A grade, meaning its terms of service is easy to understand and upholds digital privacy. YouTube, on the other hand, earned a lower grade of E, meaning its terms of service included potential concerns for digital privacy.

After looking at the ToS;DR site, it’s evident most businesses don’t write these policies in a way that’s friendly and understandable for their audience. Further studies support that thought. Visual Capitalist noted that Microsoft’s service agreement would take over an hour to read, while the shortest agreement (Twitter’s) would take 24 minutes.

The Visual Capitalist infographic shows that Microsoft has one of the longest terms of service agreements. It was 15,260 words long and is estimated to take over an hour to read.
A snippet of Visual Capitalist’s infographic comparing how long it would take to read major companies’ service agreements. Microsoft’s agreement was the longest, clocking in at a read time of 1 hour, 3 minutes, and 30 seconds.

Learn more: Watch Frances Gordon’s webinar with GatherContent

How to do a legal document review

As a writer, meeting with different stakeholders—including legal and compliance—is key to conducting a legal document review. This not only helps you maintain the integrity of the document, but ensures it meets the needs and expectations of all stakeholders.

Good to know: To identify additional stakeholders that should be involved in your legal document review process, it’s a good idea to refer to your content governance model. If your company doesn’t have one yet, this content governance model checklist can help your head of content put one together.

Here are the main stages of a legal document review and what’s involved with each step:

1. Meet with your subject matter experts

When writing or rewriting a legal document, your company’s legal team is likely your main source of subject matter experts. It’s a good idea to get them involved early in the document review process so your content meets any specific legal requirements they’re familiar with.

It may even be best to sit down with them before you start writing so you can understand what the contract says first. This step also applies if you’re writing content related to a contract or policy, for example, a customer service message that refers to your company’s cancelation policy.

Questions to ask your legal team

When you meet with your legal team, remember their goal for contracts and policies is to remove legal risk for your company. To dig deeper and develop a better understanding of how the particular legal document or content that refers you’re writing can remove risk, Gordon recommends starting with these questions:

  1. What kind of contract is this? Is it a subscription agreement, short-term insurance agreement, terms of use, or something else? You should also ask whether other contracts are incorporated into this one.
  2. Who is the contract between? Is it a contract between a customer and one single company or a group of companies? You should also understand whether the contract is for consumers or a business, then further define who it’s for. This could be a contract for users of a website, customers who purchased a service, subscribers of a service, and plenty of other possibilities.
  3. What kind of exchange takes place? This is the “nexus” of the contract, and it should describe what the contract parties agree to. For example, the nexus could be, “We are giving access to an app and you are paying a monthly fee for using the app.”
  4. If there has been litigation, ask what litigation has occurred and whether the contract could help mitigate any risk.
  5. When is the contract agreed to? Is it agreed to when the service is used, the website is accessed, or when a button is clicked to give consent?
  6. What are the main risks this contract should protect against? This could include arbitration or class action waivers, for example.

Next, you’ll also want to gather info about the scope of the legal document from your compliance team.

Questions to ask your compliance team

Generally, your compliance department wants to ensure any legal content complies with laws and regulations that promote fairness and transparency. To help ensure your legal documents meet those goals, here are some questions to ask:

  1. What regulations apply to these types of contracts? You should know what kind of contract you’re crafting after speaking with your legal team, but if not, be sure to ask.
  2. Why was this regulation created? Understanding the why behind certain regulations can help you decide the best way to present the information.
  3. Is there anything we need to emphasize according to the regulation? If yes, why and what is the intention behind it? How does emphasizing this protect consumers?
  4. Do any of these regulations impact how we communicate our terms and conditions? For example, a need to use plain language.
  5. Does the existing contract contain everything we need, or is there anything else we need to include? Do we need to rewrite any parts of the existing contract because they risk going against regulations?
  6. Is there a prescribed format or any prescribed content? For example, a prescribed format could be how interest rates are represented, while a prescribed format could be a requirement for a durable medium, enabling the consumer to store information in a way that’s accessible for future reference.

Gordon notes that, for the last question, it’s good to get specific. You should ask if any aspects of the contract need to be emphasized and whether that means you need to use bold, italics, or upper case—or all three styles.

2. Editor review

Next, have your editor review your draft and ensure it’s grammatically correct and well written.

But don’t worry about translating into plain language just yet. You’ll tackle that in the next step with help from your legal specialist.

3. Stakeholder review

At this point, you’ll want to check back in with your legal team for a stakeholder review. While your initial chat gave you info about the foundation and intent of the contract or policy, this chat is intended to help you translate the document into plain language.

Change legalese to plain language

One trick Gordon recommends is to first look at the legal document and circle any words that might be confusing to you or to consumers. After you’ve gone through the whole document, add the circled words to a drafting table like the one below.

A drafting table helps you identify legalese terms and words, such as hereby, and their common use, legal meaning, and whether to keep or replace them.
A drafting table like this one helps you identify whether confusing words or terms have a specific legal meaning or if you can discard or replace them with a better plain language option.

Once you’ve added all the circled words to the drafting table, sit down with your legal and compliance teams to fill in the rest of the info, including:

  • What’s the common use of this word or term, if it has a common use?
  • Does this word or term have a specific legal meaning? If so, what is it?

Then, decide whether to keep, replace, or completely remove the word or term from the document. If you choose to replace it, make sure your compliance and legal specialist agree on the replacement word or term.

It’s also a good idea to use this time to look for the following issues and update them based on the principles of clear writing as shared by the Office of the Federal Register, including:

  • Change passive voice to active voice
  • Replace nominals, or nouns with verbs inside—for example, “give consideration to” becomes “consider”
  • Replace “shall” with “must”
  • Use present tense
  • Be consistent with the words you use

Write out definitions

If you and your legal team decide it’s best to keep some legalese in the document, you can help your customers better understand what it means by adding definitions. This step is also important to tackle alongside your legal specialist to ensure the definition you include matches the legal meaning of the term or phrase.

When writing out your definitions, Gordon recommends considering these four parts:

  1. The term that’s being defined
  2. The verb
  3. The general group that the term belongs to
  4. The unique characteristics that distinguish the term from all others in its group

4. Compliance review

After your legal team signs off on the document and all edits made for plain language, it’s time to pay your compliance team another visit.

Your compliance specialist needs to ensure the contract or policy meets regulations set by the industry, a governing body, or even your own company. These can include:

  • The Plain Writing Act (US.)
  • Industry regulations (for example, Treating Customers Fairly for financial institutions in South Africa)
  • CCPA, California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA), and Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act (VCDPA)
  • GDPR (EU)
  • Consumer Rights Act (UK.)

According to Gordon, these regulations usually require your document to meet the following guidelines:

  • Your customers can explicitly accept your terms, and those terms must be in plain language
  • The terms can’t be too long, but also shouldn’t leave out important information
  • Your terms must pull important information to “the front of the experience”
  • All information must be consistent at all stages of the customer’s experience—for example, you can’t say “fee” in one place and then say “rate” in another
  • Your terms must help your customers make informed decisions

Your compliance team also has plain language regulations in mind and will help you spot any missed opportunities to translate legalese into text that’s easier to understand.

What is a document review checklist?

Also called a document control checklist or a single source of truth, the document review checklist includes items each reviewer should look for. The checklist ensures your legal agreements and policies are consistent, compliant, and meet quality standards.

Your document review checklist should include the following elements:

  • The name of the document or project
  • Document or project sponsors
  • The workflow—what’s the next step, or who’s the next reviewer?
  • Any guidelines the reviewer should follow
  • The intended audience of the document
  • The goals of the document

As far as checklist items for your reviewers to keep an eye out for, these are a great place to start:

  • Correct dates and consistent date formats (for example, 1/12/2023 and 12/1/2023 are the same date but in different formats)
  • Correct references are noted, and links point to the correct page and aren’t broken
  • Correct spelling is used (for example, council versus counsel)
  • Table of contents matches the structure of the document
  • Clear communication and plain language are used
  • Definitions are included where necessary
  • All acronyms are spelled out on first use and an acronym list is included
  • Structure or format matches the correct template, if a template is available
  • Consistent terminology is used

A critical part of producing and updating legal policies and agreements, the document review process involves multiple steps and stakeholders. Each stage of the process helps ensure your document removes risk for your company and meets any requirements set by industry, brand, or government regulations.

On top of that, the document review process helps you as the writer ensure you can safely and accurately translate legalese into clear, easily understandable language.

While all these steps and requirements may seem cumbersome, content production software like GatherContent can help streamline your review process. It acts as your single source of truth, template database, and communication and approval hub. Learn more and start a free trial of GatherContent today.

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