By Quinton Lister, Legal assistant
Before I was a legal assistant, I was an undergraduate in Philosophy at Brigham Young University. One of my logic professors said something to me that I feel is important in both philosophy and in law. In order to avoid logical fallacies in any argument, you need to define your terms. So (and I am paraphrasing this a little bit), my logic professor stated, “It’s not about what you say, it is about what you mean by what you say”. The point being that you must be rigorous in your definitions of the terms you are using. For instance, in an ethical debate one must be clear on what is meant by the terms “good” or “bad” or “moral”. If you do not know what is meant by what you say, it is hard to defend what you say.
This applies in legal communications directly because I am finding that there is so much jargon and terms of art used in the practice of law. I need to grow accustomed to the fact that at this point, when I am a legal assistant with (so far) no formal legal education, I can’t assume that I know what is meant by what is said or written. My boss, being an experienced attorney, often can call me out when I do not know what I am saying. This has been fascinating because I am not always aware of my incompetence. So, if I cannot define or understand a term or a principle, I am learning that I just need to say, “I don’t know”. This is challenging because I am not accustomed to admitting I do not know something because it feels like a cardinal sin. From kindergarten to college we are rewarded for “knowing the answers” and punished when we don’t. All through my growing up years that held true everywhere else too: not just school, but church, extra-curricular activities, my part-time job as a teen, etc.), but now, at least in the legal profession (though I have reason to believe it’s the same in other professions), it is not about looking or sounding informed, but actually knowing how to solve all or even just part of a given problem. And you can’t solve the problem if you don’t know what it is or how to describe it fully and accurately to other legal professionals and to your judge.
I need to know what I mean by what I say and ensure those with whom I am communicating know it too. To do that, whether I am writing a simple email or an appellate brief to file with the court, successful, persuasive communication starts with learning to write and speak clearly.
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