Attorney Tip #5 – Talk Like A Lawyer

No, we don’t mean speak to your clients using “legalese.”  We mean the exact opposite. On January 1, 2012, the ABA Journal re-published “More Than Just Words: This Is What It Really Means to Talk Like a Lawyer” by Jim McElhaney.  Mr. McElhaney, a law professor and the ABA Journal’s Litigation columnist, was leaving the Journal after 25 years when this article was re-published.  The article originally appeared in the Journal’s September 1991 issue.

Document4In the article, Mr. McElhaney recounts the story of a young attorney trying to persuade a large corporate client to adopt a novel and risky position and of the young attorney’s miserable failure.  On the ride back from the client meeting, the young attorney’s supervisor explained to him how to talk like a lawyer.  Years later, that young attorney, then a supervisor himself, gave the same speech to a young attorney in Mr. McElhaney’s presence.  Mr. McElhaney in turn bestowed the wisdom on his readers in 1991.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • Bond With Your Audience – Pleasing your audience is the key to persuading it. . . . One of the strongest bonds a lawyer can draw on is the very reason for everyone being in court in the first place: to right a wrong. 
  • Accept Responsibility – It is your job to make yourself understood—not your audience’s job to try to understand you. . . . Focus on your audience . . . . Respect your audience . . . . Treat them as equals.
  • Create A Perception of Credibility – Talk only about what you know. Whenever you try to fake it, little verbal and nonverbal clues will give you away.
  • Have Something To Say – You need a point of view, a story with an object, a theme. You need to have something to say.
  • Show, Don’t Tell – If a point is worth making, it is worth illustrating. Good examples—apt analogies—are more precious than rubies.
  • Keep It Simple – The art of simplicity is not only knowing how everything fits together, but also knowing what can safely be discarded. And this is where lawyers have trouble. . . . Forget the exceptions unless they are directly relevant to what you are doing. Your function is not to cover everything; it is to make a focused presentation.
  • Make A Memory – Usually your goal is not to impress your audience with what a fine speaker you are, but rather to persuade. And that means the memories you create should be vivid word pictures—sometimes even uncomfortably vivid word pictures—that will argue your case for you.
  • Stop – When you are done, stop. Afterthoughts, recapitulations, repetitive exhortations and the dismal trailing off by the speaker who is not certain he has finished cost more than whatever they could possibly add to a presentation. It’s much better to leave your audience thinking they want more than knowing they have heard too much.

Wise words indeed.

You’ve got options.  The Center for Legal Practice Reform can help you navigate the attorney/client relationship and level the playing field.  Call LPR today for a free consultation – (301) 351-7970.

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