Mastering the Lingo

by Syamsuriatina Ishak


As a new lawyer, you will notice that experienced lawyers are excellent linguists, be they litigators or drafters. As a Chambie (and even till now), I love to spend extra time in Court just listening to talented orators present their submissions; their persuasive nature borne not only from their facts and arguments, but how they presented those points.  In doing corporate advisory, I can hardly contain my admiration when dealing with a talented craftsperson who uses their words to precisely draft a contractual term that effectually communicates the intentions of parties.

Mastering the lingo of lawyering is an essential requirement in surviving in the legal profession.

Why?

Because a lawyer must say what they mean and mean what they say.

To do otherwise can lead to confusion, inconvenience and would often cause unnecessary financial and emotional strain on your client, which you as a lawyer have been hired to prevent!

A good lawyer is an excellent wordsmith.

Too many graduates of law enter the legal profession with excellent academic qualifications but with weak communication skills. If I had to prioritize what skills make a good lawyer, I would rate a lawyer’s communication skills as THE most important tools of its trade. In fact, a law graduate with so-so results would be happy to know that, in the real world, a lawyer’s capability in communications, translated into their handling their cases, is what ensures success, not a 4.0 CGPA.

The good news is, even if you aren’t a great communicator now, there are always ways in which you can brush up your skills.

“So, Tina,” you ask, “if my communication skills are not up to par, how can I repair that situation now?”



Here are some useful tips:


1) READ. READ. READ

The most important way you improve your communication skills is to immerse yourself with the way other people communicate, think and reason. If you read often enough, the rules of grammar and the use of words in a persuasive manner will come habitual to your own thinking and mind.

a) Read widely and informatively

In order to understand many aspect of world cultures and business practices, develop empathy and a firm grasp of concepts that may otherwise be alien to you (because these concepts do not surround you on a daily basis), you have to be prepared to read widely, with the intention of informing yourself of what is going on around you. Read newspapers (various types, including but not just the tabloids), read magazines (current affairs, lifestyle, motoring, you name it), read books (non-fiction and fiction), read online articles and blogs (opinion and commentary).

b) Read what you like and what you don’t like

Entertain yourself by reading the sources that are to your liking (Thriller, Horror, Mystery, Romance/ChickLit, SciFi, Historical, Wartime realism, whatever the case may be), but also materials that are not to you liking. You may not agree to a certain point of view, but in order for you to make an informed choice or give mature opinion, you have to read and understand the viewspoints and perceptions of different people.

c) Make reading a habitual occurrence

Do it daily and all the time. Put aside a few minutes at the start of every day to pick up a few newspapers and skim through the headlines, before delving into the different reports. Keep a current affairs magazine within your reach (in your bag, in your electronic tablet, in your car) to fill the time while waiting at a service counter, having a lonely meal, at a very long traffic stop. Before going to sleep, take the time to read a couple of chapters of at least one novel.


2) GO FOR LANGUAGE TRAINING

Never be embarrassed to go back to school. It’s better that you put aside a month or two months to force yourself to learn the tools of your trade, than spending the next ten to twenty years performing badly in your line of work. 

> Attend a course in creative writing to spark your inner storyteller (this comes in handy for litigation or drafting work); 

> take a ‘teaching’ course in grammar and vocabulary because learning how to teach it right often defines in your mind the ‘whys and hows’ of proper linguistics;

> Participate in training programmes that encourage the use of linguistics, such as advocacy training programs, drafting workshops etc.


3) EMULATE THE GREATS

When you’re done with your matter in Court, take that extra time to sit in on Open Court hearings conducted by other senior counsel. Listen carefully the words they use: the persuasive approach with which they state their case, the polite but firm way they deal with their opponents, the manner in which they interact with the Bench, the unique styles each advocate performs. Note these techniques and emulate them in your own presentation, eventually developing a style that works for you.

When you’re dealing with your seniors and opponents, note how they weave their words to achieve their intended results. If necessary, keep a log of useful terms and phrases to be utilized by you at a later opportunity.


4) WIDEN YOUR SOCIAL CIRCLE

In order to speak like a professional, you need to surround yourself with professionals. Never be afraid to venture into social circles that are not your ordinary clique. One of the surest ways is to involve yourself in committees within the State Bar or Bar Council, because working with others on a collaborative capacity is the ideal way to become friends with other lawyers, be they your peers, merely a few years ahead of you or very senior. In my experience, this is the best way to make friends for life in this profession. 

Another is by attending public events of the Bar – attend social events and Annual General Meetings of State Committees and the Malaysian Bar. Don’t worry if you don’t know anyone. You can make friends there! Listen to how members articulate their concerns. Do this regularly even if you’re new. Each time you do, you make new friends, acquaintances and raise your social awareness of goings-ons around you.   



A strong grasp of language in legal practice is an essential skill which every lawyer must master in order to perform well in the legal profession. Go forth and conquer!

M