Lawyers, Law Students, Law School Administrators, and Language
[1.] Words and phrases can have different meanings, connotations, and associations to different people. “Work will set you free,” for instance, might seem like a perfectly good slogan to many. (Consider freedom from economic dependency on parents or spouses or the government.) But it might not work well for listeners who know it was also the sign written in German at the entrance to Auschwitz. At least it will yield an unpleasant association for them—never a good effect for a slogan supposed to inspire people. And it might make them question the motives of the speaker, even if they ultimately answer the question with “he probably just didn’t know the connection.”
Likewise, using “he” as a generic singular pronoun might seem like a normal convention to some, but might make others bristle. Same for using “they” for the same purpose, which some readers might find normal and convenient, but others might find linguistically jarring or view as a distracting or disagreeable political statement. Nor is this limited to political reactions: To many, “decimate” means “To inflict great destruction or damage on” or “To reduce markedly in amount”; others think of the historical meaning, which involved killing, and in particular killing one out of ten. And such differing reactions are an unsurprising consequence of “diversity,” in the simple sense of people with different experiences, educations, and attitudes coming together in one institution.
It’s important to teach law students—and other students—to be keenly aware of such possibilities as speakers and writers. I often do that myself, especially when I teach my brief-writing clinic. (For instance, I routinely recommend that students avoid pronoun controversies by, if possible, pluralizing the referent and then using “they,” which few readers would find controversial and distracting in its traditional plural context.)
At the same time, this goes both ways: It’s important to teach students to be aware of the risk that they are seeing intentions and evil future plans that were not intended. Few people want a lawyer who constantly bristles at every term that could be interpreted as something bad, whether from opposing counsel, from prospective partners in a deal, from the lawyer’s own client, or from coworkers. If a lawyer tries to argue that the other side’s reference to Popeyes Chicken is actually racially offensive, because Popeyes Chicken is fried chicken and fried chicken has been used as part of anti-black stereotypes, the lawyer might well lose credibility with many judges or jurors, who may think that Popeyes Chicken is just Popeyes Chicken.
[2.] Which of course brings us to TrapHouseGate, where a Yale law student member
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