Think Like A Lawyer. Speak Like a Fish.

“Think like a lawyer.” This phrase is pounded into our heads during three years of legal education like no other. In fact, so much emphasis is based on acquiring this skill set, that we spend the first few months of law school seemingly learning a new language. When we observe classmates suffer through formulating their responses in exactly the right way, we learn that just being right is not enough. You have to be right and you have to be able to phrase the right response in a lawyerly way. Otherwise, you might end up on the receiving end of a probing Civil Procedure professor’s seemingly unending list of questions on something like the Erie doctrine.

When we enter the profession, this phrase, “think like a lawyer” is repeated ad nauseum by colleagues and co-workers. We spend so much time learning to think like a lawyer that it is easy to forget that lawyers do not think like other people. In fact, lawyers tend to think in ways that non-lawyers may find confusing – if not down right obnoxious. What’s worse is when our highly lawyerly thoughts take over our voice and come out in the way that we speak.

I have yet to find anyone who actually likes to listen to “lawyer speak.” But if you spend all of your early years in the profession learning to think and talk like a lawyer – it can be very easy to lose your own voice.

You know what voice I’m talking about. It’s the voice your clients use when they call and ask for advice. It’s the voice your friends and family members may use when they pick your brain for legal tidbits. It’s very likely the same voice that you used before you bought wholesale into the “think like a lawyer, speak like a lawyer” mandate.

The challenge with learning to think and speak like a lawyer is that it can alienate you from the very people you want to serve.

I learned this first hand when it came to designing my website. My first website was a “think like a lawyers” dream. It was full of legalease, accolades and footnotes that I thought would make me more appealing to my audience. And if my audience were judges for a moot court competition – then I would have had no problems whatsoever.

But that was not my audience. My audience was full of working class people who needed to talk to someone who was able to speak in a voice to which they could relate. My audience did not have time to check my cross references and confirm the accuracy of my citations. They needed answers in plain English.

I knew this intuitively, but when it came to my website – I was pulled in two directions. On the one hand I wanted to attract clients. But on the other hand, I was concerned with how other lawyers would see me if my website did not use legalease. In a profession that is highly image driven, I was concerned with what other lawyers would think if I did not demonstrate my “think like a lawyer” skills on my website.

Classic rookie mistake.

When we spend our formative years in the profession surrounded by other attorneys in the making, we want to seem…well…lawyerly. For people who are caught up in thinking like a lawyer, using legalease is a surefire way to pull off the “I’m a lawyer” presentation.

We don’t often realize that there is a subtle hierarchy at play when we learn to “think” like a lawyer. We tend to place a higher value on that skill than on our ability to translate those thoughts into a communication style that works for our clients. Typically when I speak with other lawyers about this issue, they think I am advocating for “dumbing down” the conversation. They miss the point.

Thinking like a lawyer is important. But speaking like a human is key to your ability to attract and keep the type of clients that you want. Instead, focus on the words your clients use to describe their issues. Take note of the phrases and lexicon so that you can begin incorporating them into your own voice. When clients (or prospective clients) call with a question – write down the way they phrased it so that you can use similar phrases in the future.

When you write a blog article – remember who you are writing for and include those phrases and terminology in your article. Try to describe legal concepts in a way that might infuriate your Civ Pro professor – but that would make your parents proud.

I recently heard the phrase that in order to get good clients then you have to “fish where the fish are.” That may be true – but the end of the day – if your clients speak fish, then being where they are is just the first step. Growing and keeping a successful practice will also require that you to learn to speak fish.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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3 comments on “Think Like A Lawyer. Speak Like a Fish.

  • Nice post. (I particularly enjoyed the admonition to risk incurring the wrath of one’s Civ Pro professor.) My only complaint: The title of the post is so catchy and apt that I wish I’d come up with it myself.

  • Totally agree. Once I had to give a presentation to a class of 3-4 year olds at my daughter’s pre-school on a Lawyer’s occupation. I had to do great exercise to come up with the language and examples that would make sense to the little ones. It also made me realize that it is definitely possible to say exactly what you want to say in the simple language of a preschooler without using complex adult words, let alone legalese.

  • I first noticed this tendency for “legalese-ish” from my brother (a lawyer). And later, trying to help lawyers speak through their websites, I realized how strong the tendency is.

    You’ve just opened a window of insight for me. I thought it was somewhat intentional obnoxiousness at work. Thanks for the insight and for sharing.

    Nobody ever complained about getting the point “too quickly and clearly”.

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