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Self-help guide simplifies everyday legal contracts

When it comes to legal contracts, the language can be confusing and intimidating. Some lawyers would like to keep it that way, but others are coming out in behalf of the layman.

Among those in the latter group are Joel D. Joseph and Jeffrey Hiller, authors of ''Legal Agreements in Plain English'' (Chicago, Contemporary Books, $ 9.95). In an attempt to simplify the business of everyday legal transactions, they spell out the basic principles and definitions of legal terms governing many contracts, including marriage agreements, sale of personal property, home improvement, starting a business, loans, wills, rental leases, employment, and buying or selling a home. The book includes 33 usable, legally binding forms for conducting these transactions which can be modified to suit specific needs.

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''A lot of lawyers are not happy about books like these,'' says coauthor Joel Joseph. ''Every profession wants its own internal language.''

As much as some might want to keep it intact, the inviolate wall of obligatory ''hereinafters'' and ''to wits'' is starting to crumble down. The ''plain-English movement,'' which began about a decade ago, is succeeding in its efforts to eliminate unnecessary legal jargon from consumer documents.

In the early '70s, banks began to rewrite their loan applications and the insurance industry began to eliminate confusing language from its standardized forms. By the end of the '70s, the revised forms were in use in almost three-fourths of the 50 states. City real estate boards, including Chicago in 1974 and Boston this year, have developed simplified rental lease forms.

In 1978 New York was the first state to pass a broad-based ''plain-English law'' requiring all consumer contracts for less than $50,000 to be written using ''common and everyday'' words. Connecticut, Maine, and Hawaii followed suit, and several other states are considering the idea.

On an individual level, authors Joel Joseph and Jeffrey Hiller hope to dispel the mystique surrounding the legal profession by providing some basic legal knowlege and to encourage the layman to take more control over his or her legal affairs. Personal control of legal transactions

''A lot of people go to lawyers for every little problem they have,'' says Mr. Joseph.

He believes people could easily cut down on their legal bills by writing their own agreements rather than hiring a lawyer to draft a contract from scratch. He emphasizes it is important, however, to have a lawyer approve these agreements.

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When approached by clients who have not done any advance preparation, lawyers may simply copy a basic contract themselves, pad it with some impressive legalese, and make it slightly longer than necessary so the client feels he is getting his money's worth, Mr. Joseph says.

He personally considers it a waste of his time to write a basic contract and much prefers to work with or simply review an agreement written by a client. In more complex matters, such as a divorce, he advises parties to work out as many provisions as they can based on public court files of similar cases, and then have a lawyer look it over to make sure the settlement agreement complies with local statutes and continue with any complex, non-layman matters. Preventive legal care

One primary safeguard against unnecessary legal disputes is to put agreements in writing, especially if they involve sums of $100 or more.

''Too many oral agreements are broken and later denied,'' Mr. Joseph says.

Other basic principles to remember which are outlined in the book include: Get a copy of everything you sign; sign every page of the agreement; make sure everything you buy is in acceptable mechanical condition; and consult with a lawyer even when you are writing your own agreements (initial consultation is often free or very low in cost).

The key safeguard is to seek legal advice before you get into a tangle. According to Mr. Joseph, whether or not to work with a lawyer is mainly a common-sense decision. When entering into a major transaction and you are uncertain about its terms or consequences, it is important to consult a lawyer before signing anything rather than wait until a problem develops and try to sort it out later.

In purchasing a home or condominium, for example, buyers are sometimes not aware of some crucial provisions, such as financing and inspection contingencies , which are not usually included in standard purchase agreements.

''These are the two places people really get into trouble,'' Mr. Joseph says.

Hiring a lawyer at the outset of these more complex transactions helps prevent major problems. Breach of contract

If all precautions fail, there are various ways to settle a dispute. As Mr. Joseph writes, ''Not every breach of contract deserves to be made into a federal case.''

It seems as if America has a trigger finger when it comes to lawsuits. The United States is the most litigious society in the world, with more lawyers per capita than any other country, says Mr. Joseph. Courts are struggling under staggering caseloads, bogging down the system as high as the Supreme Court.

In light of these very real concerns, Mr. Joseph believes our society will have to turn to arbitration to solve more of our disputes. He advocates including an arbitration clause in contracts in which both parties agree on an impartial third person or an arbitrator chosen by the American Arbitration Association to settle any dispute that may arise.

This simple step, he points out, could cut down on unnecessary litigation and free the courts to handle important and complex cases.

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