Lawyers must ban these words

I know people fear death less than they fear public speaking. However, there is no getting around it when you’re a lawyer and especially if you are a trial lawyer. I know that somebody is going to post some comment about how they know of some guy with a weird specialty where all they do is sit in a little cubicle all day and review paperwork. If that’s truly what they do, then it sounds like a fate worse than death. But hey, to each their own. The rest of us lawyers are going to talk to clients, Judges, juries, our friends at work, the people making our coffee in the morning, you name it.

Don’t use crutch words. Stop being annoying. It actually hurts to hear somebody trying to talk to me and every fifth word is “um.” Or, like actually, they honestly say “obviously” all the time. I suppose it is what it is, which means it’s pointless. No actually it means you watch too much ESPN where they interview the dummies who say “it is what it is” all the time as some kind of idiotic sports slang for “I don’t know what else to say because I can’t read or spell.”

Crutch words are habitual phrases we inject into our speech as a way of filling gaps or helping bridge blank spots. Sometimes I think young lawyers pick up some of these because they try to give their thoughts serious meaning. They believe it sort of accentuates what they say as they take their first steps in the courtroom with the big kids. Most of the time the crutch words are annoying and make them sound like broken records. Or worse, they sound like they’re heavily lacking confidence in themselves. It’s especially bad if the crutch words make no sense like “literally” or are used in the wrong context like “synergy” or “quantum.” And the all time worst way is to say the crutch word “um” to fill space over and over like you’re worried if you let in a gap the other side will jump in and take over. You aren’t going to lose a talking contest in court if you leave a few seconds of silence between your sentences.

I suppose I don’t really care if you say this stuff at work. It bugs the heck out of our legal secretaries but they’re going to get their own revenge when they’re finally fed up with you. God have mercy on you when that happens. I feel a little bad for the people at the coffee shop but they put up with you saying “but at the end of the day” all the time because they want your twenty-five cent tip. I suppose some day they’re going to get their revenge, too.

It’s the Judges that I’m worried about. They hate lawyers who say “there are thousands of reasons” for something or who say “well basically” all the time. And if the Judges don’t like to listen to you then the clients start getting upset. Words are the way we do our craft. You have probably already figured out by now that associate attorneys live and die by the all-mighty billable hour. As soon as we figure out you’ve killed off your time in front of the Judges you’re done with bringing in money. Maybe you could go be a blogger.

In the mean time, here is my list of things I can’t stand hearing lawyers say. There are so many bad ones that I’ve separated them into sections for easy comprehension. If you figure out you’re prone to saying one of them, write it down or something to remind yourself. Put it on a sticky note so you can train yourself to stop. Please.

Not telling the truth

These are the words that every lawyer must absolutely ban from their vocabulary because they make you sound like you are lying, which is a permanent stain on your character and the end of the road as far as your job is concerned:

Actually. You’re not giving extra emphasis with this one. It sounds like you have not been telling the truth and just decided to come clean. That is the death knell for your career as a lawyer.

Literally. You are a lawyer. Everything you say better be literally true. When you say this one you sound like you are exaggerating something or adding figurative emphasis. Both of these kinds of speech are deadly in court.

Quite frankly. You damn well better be frank from the moment you get to work in the morning until you go home at night. When you say “quite frankly” you are suggesting that you aren’t normally frank but are doing it now because this is so important or something equally stupid. If a Judge ever gets a whiff of something that makes them think you have not been completely frank with them you are done.

Honestly. You better be honest from the first word that comes out of your mouth. If you have to say the word “honestly” then you sound like you haven’t been at some point. Also, people say “honestly” to convey surprise or some kind of amusement. Save those for when you talk to your friends at the bar after court.

I’m not going to lie. Well of course you aren’t because you’re job and bar license are on the line. You just went to law school for three long years, passed the bar exam, and now have $120,000 in student loans you have to pay off somehow. Why would you suggest that you could have been lying in the past but won’t now for some reason? Don’t ever say this one, even at home with your cat. You better get it straight that your word is golden from the first syllable out your mouth to the last thing you say at the end of the day. If you have to tell the Judge that you “are not going to lie” then there is a serious problem with you. 

Rude commands and emphasis

Sometimes I hear lawyers saying these words to kind of take control of the courtroom and give extra emphasis to what they are saying. You don’t need to do that. These words are rude and really bother Judges:

Look. This is an order or command that you say to get their attention or orient everyone to something important. I don’t like it. Neither do Judges. They are already looking. So am I for that matter. Hearing you order us around grates on our nerves like someone’s fingernails on an old fashioned chalkboard. If you keep saying it, sooner or later you are going to get yelled at in a big bad way in open court.

Exponentially. You say this one to try to give emphasis and sound smart at the same time. The thing is, Judges are smart too and they know the mathematical term “exponentially” has particular meaning. There are very few times in which you can correctly use this one which means you are either exaggerating or don’t know what you’re talking about. Both are big killers in front of Judges.

Right? This one is used two wrong ways. The first one is a killer when said in court. You say it when you lack confidence in what you are saying and are seeking affirmation from the Judge. The other way is an aggressive command to pay attention and agree with you. Both really make Judges mad and turn them off from whatever it was that you were saying.

Seriously. This is another one that just doesn’t work. You say it to give emphasis but you sound like a little kid playing at being a lawyer. If you had the facts and the law on your side you would not have to say “seriously” because the Judge would know it was serious.

Whatever. When you say this one you are being a rude, insolent teenager. That is never good in front of a Judge. And if you say it TO a Judge you are going to need $1,500 to bail yourself out.

Stupid filler

These are stupid to say and every time I hear them I wonder why we hired the genius who is wasting so much oxygen around the office. Don’t say these any more:

Like. What are you, some kind of Valley Girl lawyer from the 1980’s? Most people say this one unconsciously as filler when they don’t have anything meaningful to say. You sound like idiots. Recognize that you don’t need filler in your speech and cut it out because you are supposed to be a professional attorney.

Kind of like. This one is absolutely awful and it isn’t filler like saying “like” all the time. It’s a way of suggesting you don’t really know what it’s like. You couldn’t be bothered to prepare for oral argument and you’re making a comparison argument on the fly that you don’t think really fits. Think for a minute – what in the world does “kind of like” mean? It means you don’t know what you’re talking about. That is a killer for credibility with lawyers. You don’t say “kind of like” in court. You say “it is very similar to the situation in _____” or “the court faced nearly the same facts in this other case…” and then you carefully explain the similarities and differences.

So/um. These usually come out like “sooooooooooo” or “ummmmmmmm.” They are filler at its worst. You say these to prevent someone else from jumping in while you desperately try to think up the next thing you are going to say. Try going over your argument in advance. Write out an outline and organize yourself before you show up in court. It will work wonders for you and your client.

Per se. What does this mean? I don’t think you actually know. You are saying it to sound fancy. Focus your brain and stick to real English. Lawyers love old latin phrases but use them correctly. When you just throw them around you sound stupid.

Fantastic. Do you know what this one actually means? You are suggesting that the thing you are referring to belongs in the realm of fantasy and imagination. This word was popular in the 1970’s. Don’t sound like a weirdo and destroy your credibility with the Judge.

Going Forward. This one is also a stupid phrase with no meaning. Of course everything is going forward. Does anything ever go backward? Give an actual date when things are going to happen and concrete steps about when things will get done. Don’t talk about stupid general ideas of nice things that will never occur.

Fascinating. Unless you are actually British, this one sounds condescending. Actually it sounds that way when they say it too. Judges hate it, witnesses hate it, and it makes you sound like a snobby lawyer who isn’t paying attention. You sound patronizing and inconsiderate when you say “fascinating” so cut it out of your vocabulary.

Improper implications

These are career killers. Maybe not necessarily the first time, but if you say them enough you are headed back to get your MBA or something. Maybe you can get a job in sales. They take everyone.

As it were. Of course everything is as it were. It’s also as it is and as it will be in the future. When you say this one you are either saying something dumb or you are coyly telling the Judge that you know what you just said was a bad cliché or a lie from the client, or something. If you’re worried about either of those, don’t say anything at all. Just move on so that the Judge doesn’t get really mad.

Apparently. You say this one to kind of hint that you have authority for saying something without actually being ready with a case cite to back it up. You’re implying somebody told you or you have proof when you don’t. You can also use this one to allude to bad things like insults or racist statements without actually being accused of saying it yourself. The Judges know it also gives you some cover to backtrack if somebody points out that you’re wrong. You can try to say “well, apparently that’s not true anymore” or something equally bad. Judges sniff this one out all the time. The first occasion they hit you for saying it will probably be your last so I’m giving you fair warning here.

If you will. This one is huge red flag. When you inject “if you will” into something you are saying you are asking people to believe some huge lie or exaggeration. You are asking the listener to just go along with you while you make some kind of argument about what could be or maybe should be. Either way, it’s a big way to tick off Judges. No they won’t, unless you really explain why which won’t require you to say “if you will.”

Personally. Nothing is supposed to be your personal opinion or your own life story in court. You are a professional lawyer who is being an advocate for your client. Stick to the facts and the law. The Judge doesn’t care about you or your personal feelings on something. Besides, it’s improper to try to use your personal credibility to bolster the facts as in “personally I believe my client and you should too.” So shut up about yourself.

Skipping over too much/being lazy

These are the lazy lawyers way of losing a hearing. When you skip over the important stuff, you don’t give the Judge a reason to rule for your client. I call these words and phrases skipping too much. The Bar sometimes calls them malpractice.

At the end of the day. I really hate to hear people say this one. It’s similar to the problem with “basically” up above. You’re trying to just jump to the end and avoid explaining things. You are there to tell the Judge the reasons. Don’t jump to the end of anything at all.

Basically. You say this one to try to skip over the legal reasoning and get to a point with some fake finality. You are trying to cut corners and it looks like you aren’t prepared to present legal reasoning for exactly why. Judges don’t want you to skip over anything. You probably learned to say “basically” all the time because you write long, rambling email messages and you use the word “basically” to get back on track and wrap it up. So, like, basically don’t do that in court.

In the final analysis. This one is just as bad as “at the end of the day” but for different reasons. You are not going to skip ahead and just tell the Judge what the final analysis is. It is your job to present logical evidence and legal argument so that the Judge can then make the final analysis. Don’t try to do their job or con them into a decision. It will backfire and the client will get really mad.

And so forth. There is no such thing as a “so forth.” You are supposed to explain each and every one of the facts. Every single one is important so don’t skip do the end. You have to lay out the reasons and the legal support. Don’t say this one and imply that there are other things you haven’t said or don’t want to say. Get them all out.

Stupid sports metaphors

I can’t stand it when I watch some idiot quarterback or right-fielder getting interviewed on TV after some big game. They all sound as stupid as fence posts. When you say these things you are telling everyone that you admire these dummies. Which brings your mental capacity into serious question and reflects poorly on us for hiring you.

It is what it is. What does that mean? You are not going to connect with some male Judge who you hope also sits around watching ESPN all the time. You sound like some stupid linebacker getting interviewed on TV saying something stupid because he can’t read or write. He says “it is what it is” when his concussion from last night’s game is still scrambling his brain and he can’t think straight. When you say it, you sound like you’re brain is scrambled too, but without a good reason.

Take it to the next level. This is another stupid sports metaphor that has crept into what lawyers say. You better get it straight that there are no levels in court. The only level you will ever operate on is the highest level of truth, honesty, raw facts, and well founded legal argument. If you ever think you are on another level, you better take a week off to get your head screwed on straight before you end up disbarred, divorced, and homeless.

Dumb buzzwords

I’ve been hearing these a lot and I can’t stand them. I recently heard three Judges joking about a lawyer who kept dropping the first buzzword on this list. They couldn’t stand it and I got the impression that they basically ignored everything else the lawyer was saying because they were being so annoying. These buzzwords are flashy trends in other arenas. Don’t try to sound hip or something.

Synergy. This one is stupid corporate buzzword that was big about ten years ago. It’s been finding its way around so much that it has lost all meaning and become stupidly annoying. What it refers to, since you probably don’t know, is a group of things working together to create something greater than their sum. This term never applies to anything you are going to be discussing in court. Stick to real, concrete examples of normal life. Don’t try to make something sound grandiose and special. The Judges don’t believe it.

Viral. This one is sweeping the internet and news media. They are always saying something is “going viral” when they mean it is becoming popular. Say exactly what you mean. Don’t try to allude to pop culture and be cute. Judges are aware of the usage of “viral” out in the greater world. It doesn’t apply to anything going on in their courtroom and when you try to suggest it does, they cringe at your crass inability to focus.

-Samuel Owen

© Samuel Owen 2012. All rights reserved. Please read important notices and disclaimers by clicking here.

One thought on “Lawyers must ban these words

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  1. I stumbled across your blog and I love it, though I wish I could not relate as much as I do 😛 I was just lamenting about how I felt like I was in a room with a bunch of Veruca Salts this morning while discussing a settlement agreement. Thanks for the laugh. 🙂

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