October 29, 2008
Lawyer as translator
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

Jeff's post and rant has spurred me to think by writing about the role of the business lawyer. I'm plumping for lawyer-as-translator, and here's why, in no particular order:

-Legal language is impenetrable to laypeople. I remember vividly my first Torts assignment, struggling through the tangle of appellants, appellees (wait, who's suing whom?), summary judgments, and the like. A lot of what business lawyers do is explain legal terms and concepts to nonlawyers. Sometimes the listener is a client, sometimes it's the investing public or the participants in a stock option plan or a private placement. In each case, our job is to communicate clearly and accurate what's at stake legally.

-As my neighbor Joe Miller suggests, the translator metaphor resonates with the lawyer-as-priest connection one of Jeff's commenters brought up. Our presence adds "officialness" to transactions because we are initiates of a sacred realm, with its own accompanying language.

-The quarterback metaphor, as the comments to my original post make clear, is about communication. We need to "talk accountant" enough to understand the green eyeshade types, interpret that information into legal terms, and then speak to both accountants and clients in terms each can understand. Ditto for the bankers and for IP, although, as Shubha Ghosh points out, we law schools can do a better job training our transactional lawyers here.

-Translators can add value, as Gilson's paradigm demands. But they can also substract value, if they translate inaccurately or create unnecesary costs and needless complexity. They can promote understanding or create more confusion. This captures the love/hate relationship many clients seem to have with their lawyers.

-It explains why what's going on in the financial world right now has me occasionally paralyzed, and why I admired Gordon's confession so much. My language--legal language--seems inadequate for the task of explaining what's happening.

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