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When sounding like a lawyer hits the wrong note

In my first-year torts class, the professor told us during our first meeting that learning the vocabulary of a lawyer was important. He told us that someday, the potential clients who would seek us out would expect us to “sound like lawyers.” He advised us to get the pocket version of Black’s Law Dictionary, look up any word we came across that we didn’t know, check the margin and then try to use it in a sentence within the next 24 hours.

I remember thinking it was a funny thing to advise, to “sound” like a lawyer. Nonetheless, as a dutiful first-year, I took his recommendation to heart, bought my Black’s and faithfully marked up my copy over the next few years.

I had almost forgotten about his comment until I was preparing for the bar. One of the teachers I had gave the class some very strange advice: if we encountered an essay question to which we didn’t know the answer, we should isolate the area of law and just start underling and defining vocabulary words.

All of us in the class chuckled nervously and glanced at one another. He waited for that to subside.

“I’m serious,” he said after the murmurs subsided. “They want you to sound like lawyers.”

He paused a moment before adding, “The rest is up to you!”

I think often of these two instances when I am speaking with colleagues, clients and even people in other professions at networking events. It is true that attorneys are expected to “talk the talk” the same way insurance salesmen, plumbers and bartenders have specific lingo their clients expect them to know.

The real key, I think, is knowing the appropriate time and place to “sound like a lawyer.”

I can tell you from experience it isn’t at home when you might be, say, discussing kids’ carpool arrangements or their weekend sports schedule with your wife. It also isn’t when you’re explaining what you do to a class of preschoolers or kindergarteners during a career day. It isn’t even really at networking events when asked to explain what you do. In those instances, your elevator pitch has to be accessible to everyone listening, not just the other attorneys in the group.

In fact, it seems that most often, this “sounding like a lawyer” business is a performance for a client, opposing counsel or a judge, each expecting the jargon and ready to counter with their own.

The more difficult task is figuring out how not to sound like a lawyer, and, as you might be able to tell, I’m still learning.

One comment

  1. You seem to get the smallest amount possible out of experiences. Be careful not to hang out with smart people. Just language won’t be enough.