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Robert S. Duxstad
Daniel P. Bestul
Lance A. McNaughton

Why Don't Lawyers Talk Like Normal People?

Posted: 1.20.2013  |  Author: 

Road reading may be hazardous to your diet


Traffic was heavy as I was rolling down the expressway. The billboard barely registered on my consciousness: a splash of tan against a yellow background, with six words of text. At 65 miles an hour, only the words registered:


Love
People
Cook
Them
Tasty
Food


For reasons that still baffle me, some primitive part of my brain struggled to make sense of the words. Perhaps it was the fact that I had just got out of an extremely unpleasant court hearing, but the first formulation that came to mind was this:


Love people? Cook them. Tasty Food!


Even though I had all the words in the proper order, the message didn’t seem right. It took me a few minutes to figure out that the actual intended message was: “Love people. Cook them tasty food!”


I eventually learned that the billboard was an ad for Penzey’s Spices. I’m pretty sure they weren’t trying to promote cannibalism to commuters, and they had no control over the sort of day I had up until then, or the effect urban traffic had on my ability to understand their intended message. I totally missed the meaning of their comforting slogan, at least for a short time, because I missed the clues that gave the string of words their full meaning.


Words have meaning; sometimes, more than one


Facial expressions, gestures, and inflection all convey important information that help give meaning to a speaker’s words. When these visual cues are missing, the mind may struggle to fill the void; it is an entirely natural thing to do.


Along the same lines, words can have multiple meanings. For example, the word “sanction” can mean “to assent, concur, confirm, approve, or ratify;” when NASCAR sanctions an event, it is giving its blessing and approval as the largest auto racing organization in the world. On the other hand, the word can also mean “the imposition of a penalty,” and a party who has been sanctioned by the court has been punished for bad behavior.


By training, lawyers are adept at spotting inconsistencies and ambiguities in language. We often ask clarifying questions, even though there seems to be no disagreement, to make sure everyone understands the words they have used to have the same meaning. We may include introductions and definitions in written documents to ensure there is a common understanding of the terms used in the document. When engaged in negotiations or mediation, we may ask someone to restate or rephrase something so the meaning is clear. In trial, we may ask what seem to be repetitive questions to make sure the judge or jury fully understands what a witness is trying to say.


Pardon me for asking


As a family law attorney and divorce lawyer in Monroe, people regularly tell me they have everything in their case worked out. As I go through some of my typical questions, I often uncover areas where more work is needed, or important issues have been overlooked. I’m not trying to stir up trouble; instead, I’m trying to prevent trouble from happening. If I do my job well, my client most likely will not even see what I’ve done to make things better.


At the same time, I like it when my clients are engaged, and ask me to clarify and explain things that aren’t clear. Lawyers have a language all their own, and we sometimes forget that words and expressions that we use everyday are foreign to most people. We do our best work when the people we serve understand us, and we understand them. My favorite clients are the ones who ask questions.


We take a lot of grief for being overly wordy, and some of it is justified; we are, after all, the only people who can write an 11,000 word document and call it a “brief.” But an important part of our job is to prevent things from blowing up over a misunderstanding that could have been avoided. We want to make sure people understand they should be making tasty things for the people they love, rather than have to bail them out when they try to make things from the people they love.


By: Daniel P. Bestul

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