Words are the bread and butter of many professions, the law included. Lawyers need to be able to communicate facts, to tell stories, and to draw out stories that we want told. Some of the ways that we prepare our students for the challenges of legal communication are simple—students have to learn legal terms of art, participate in oral arguments, and practice writing both objective memos and persuasive briefs.
But with all this preparation, it never gets any less important to watch your language. Legal parlance and jokes can often be misinterpreted. Two stories on Law.com today illustrate the point. One is about a Nebraska lawyer who, in defending a colleague on a minor driving charge, sent a letter to the county attorney’s office suggesting that the case be dismissed. He claims that the letter was intended as a joke, but no one seems to be laughing. The lawyer was suspended for four months.
The second article is about a defense attorney charged with conspiring with a client to threaten witnesses. Tapes reveal the lawyer using words like “kill” and “neutralize” when talking about witnesses. The accused claims that those words are common parlance for lawyers.
We do not actually know the motivations of these attorneys. But whether or not they were only joking, or innocently using common terms, it is clear that the words they chose were important. Law students are taught that language is an important tool for a good lawyer, but it is also good to remember that our words not only make us really good lawyers—they stop us from becoming really bad ones.