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How Language and Wording Can Make or Break a Lawyer

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

By: Julia Teichman

As one applying for any legal position would notice, the key skills and requirements typically listed in a job description are excellent oral and written communication skills. In essence the legal system relies on precise terminology and clear universal definitions. Hence the search for a lawyer with compelling communication skills can be expected during the recruitment process.

There are many factors contributing to the significance of effective communication and, more specifically, language use in the legal field. This would include the ability to draft documents using complex legal jargon and simultaneously preparing to explain these statements using lay language. Law firms actively seek out these skills (in all fairness!) as it ensures the candidate will represent the firm to the highest standards and form successful relationships with the firm’s clients.

Impact of language in various legal areas

Using intellectual property (IP) law as an example, language use is particularly important. In the field of IP, it is crucial to develop skills in writing, specifically being able to draw up detailed and accurate descriptions. The profession of a patent lawyer involves identifying all unique features of a new product, whether that would be in music, technological inventions, or medicinal products, and providing convincing statements on how that product differs from those available on the market. Therefore, achieving success in such a career, on top of substantial knowledge of a specific technical field as well as law, requires having an awareness of language choice and working to build up one’s vocabulary.

Moving on to international law, we must consider the fact that for each legislation multiple translations across a range of countries will be carried out, which can come with differences in interpretation as a result of barriers in direct translation and potential bias due to varied cultural backgrounds. According to Article 50 of the Rome Statute, the UN recognises 6 languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) for the International Criminal Court, suggesting a considerable amount of room for linguistic misinterpretation and diverse beliefs.

Preventing misinterpretation and legal loopholes

One of the key features of any high-quality legal document is clarity in terms of the fundamental message and encompassing details to avoid misunderstandings and potential disputes.

Sometimes changes in wording result in changes in understanding, creating a fine line in whether a breach of law was committed in a particular case. A relevant example would be the recent announcement of the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) about the existing laws against sharing streaming platform accounts. Initially, the IPO claimed there could be consequences for “password sharing on streaming services” and quickly changed their statement to “accessing … without paying a subscription”. We can see here that their second statement is a lot more vague and leaves more room to argue against the infringement of IP rights. Hence, those in charge of making and enforcing the law have a huge responsibility to pay attention to detail, down to the choice of words for the new law to be passed or case arguments.

Concluding statement

To combat these issues, it is important for any practicing or aspiring lawyer to devote some of their time to look over the language used in their work to limit possible misinterpretation and guarantee quality representation of clients and their firm. Legal terminology exists to eliminate incidents of misunderstanding providing lawyers with detailed words and phrases to ensure clarity in a legal dispute. However, the individual's choice of language still matters.


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