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How Accessible Is The Language of Law?

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As trial lawyers, the presentation of a case naturally includes the language and vocabulary we use to describe the case, the parties and the issues. We are tasked with presenting complicated topics and issues to a set of jurors, the vast majority of whom have no legal training whatsoever. And yet we become desensitized to the words we use offhandedly every day. Words like “motion,” “appellate,” and “summary judgment.” These are a part of our everyday vernacular and it is so easy to fall into using these terms as if everyone should understand what they mean.

And while lawyers fall ever deeper into their own special language, the law becomes ever more inaccessible in a variety of other ways. Through preemption, forced arbitration, and rising legal costs, many people simply don’t have access to an appropriate judicial system for their claims. We don’t help matters by persisting in using language that is completely foreign to a regular person.

I read once that a great female trial lawyer always prepares for trial by explaining cases to her young child. If the child can understand, generally, what the case is about, then the lawyer can be confident in her understanding. The attorney knows that she can explain things simply. Deep understanding is a prerequisite for a simple explanation. Lawyers must strive for simplicity in their language and expression.

By the same token, we must be succinct. Mark Twain once wrote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” There are exponential increases in the thought and effort that go into creating understandable, succinct messages. And yet it is critically important. And we must, as a whole, be diligent in our attention to the language we use.

In talking with close family and friends, it has become apparent to me that I’ve fallen into the lawyer language trap. I blithely throw phrases around like “summary judgment was denied” or “direct appellate review” as if these are even mildly understandable. Being surrounded by lawyers all the time can make even the most sensitive attorney go a little language deaf. We go to work, go to events, send emails, and talk on the phone frequently with people who inherently understand these words. But this does not excuse us from being aware and focused on keeping ourselves accessible to people who don’t practice law.

Mainly, my emphasis on accessibility is on behalf of our clients. Client satisfaction is dependent upon an understanding of how hard we are working on their behalf and, naturally, how successful we are. But a client’s perception of the work that goes into, for example, a summary judgment motion, probably pales in comparison to the actual amount of work it takes to brief even the simplest legal issue. We must take the time to explain to our clients what a “summary judgment” motion really is, what the issues are, the likelihood of success, and generally the work that goes into these types of briefs.

Taking the time to explain things, and to maintain an accessible vocabulary, is critical in client understanding and a successful attorney-client relationship. It allows your clients to access the actual work you are doing, and for them to understand their cases. Accessibility demystifies a process that is often unsettling and sometimes downright scary and overwhelming.

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