Every profession has its jargon. My people (lawyers) wallow in it. Our moniker could be Jargon is Us. The official definition of jargon—“special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand”—was likely written by a lawyer. So, what are the ethics of writing legal jargon?
When writing to judges, we often say things like, “Your Honor, the proof is evident and the presumption great.” But civilians might wonder, proof of what? They might protest, presumption great, I think not. Or they might just glaze over, as clients are wont to do. Fact is, that hoary phrase, “proof evident/presumption great,” is vintage language when arguing against bail for murderers and known dog kickers.
When writing to clients, we sometimes say things like, “You don’t have a cause of action.” That irks clients, pleases opponents, and makes judges happy. Fact is, a cause of action must exist for a lawsuit to succeed.
When responding to questions from irksome reporters, we frequently say, “No comment.” Even when we know good and well that, “No comment” is a comment.
This begs the question of whether writing legal jargon is ethical. It is, and is not, depending on its inherent truthfulness and its obvious ambiguity. If we use jargon in writing to like-minded individuals (all judges were once lawyers), we are on safe ethical and legal grounds. If we use jargon in writing to clients, to whom we owe fiduciary duties and clarity, we are on shaky ethical grounds if the jargon confuses or misleads. If we use jargon to reporters, we risk being asked more and more and even dumber questions. Besides, jargon to reporters is like being on deadline with nothing jotted down.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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