Trial Lawyers: Choose Your Next Word Carefully!

After three years of law school, you’re expected to be a wordsmith.  You make your living with words, so it’s important to choose your words carefully when speaking to judges and jurors.  You want to avoid words that invoke resistance from jurors, and choose words that make it easy for them to buy.

Today you’re going to begin building the vocabulary list for your trial.  Your vocabulary list will include the preferred words that you’ll purposely use in trial (because they best tell your story), as well as a list of the words that you will avoid using because they’re weak words or they detract from your message.  Here are three quick tips for creating an effective vocabulary list for trial:

1. Create Your Vocabulary List
There are multiple ways to describe any fact or any situation.  But which word or phrase will sell your case most powerfully?  For example, here are the different vocabulary choices that a salesperson might make in a sales situation:

Rather than… Say this instead…
“Price” “Investment”
“Contract” “The paperwork,”
“The agreement”
“Buy” “Take ownership”

In this step, you’re going to spend some time creating vocabulary lists for your next trial.  On one page, list the words that create the best images for you – the words you want to use during trial (for example, which sounds better for your case: “accident” or “crash?”)  On the other page, list the words you want to avoid using.   Here are some examples to get you started:

Negative Words Positive Words
“Drunk” “Impaired”
“Accident” “Crash”
“Cops” “Law enforcement officers”
“Machine” “Instrument”
“[DEFENDANT’S NAME]” “Defendant”

When building your vocabulary list, you’ll also want to include power words and phrases.  For example, your opponents shouldn’t “say” anything.  They either “claim” it or they “want you to believe…”  They don’t “agree” to stipulated facts, they “admit” that those facts are true.  If you don’t already have a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus at your desk, pick up your copy today, and then invest some time browsing for words that will add more punch to your case.  Take a look at this example from a fraud case:

Instead of… Consider…
“fraud” “betrayed him”
“betrayal”
“double dealing”
“scammed”
“stabbed him in the back”
“cheated”
“deception”
“duped”
“bamboozled”
“deceived”
“buried the truth”
“pulled a fast one”
“plotted together”
“schemed”
“dishonesty”
“conned”
“swindled”

Don’t those words have more punch and hit you with more impact?  Invest the time creating your vocabulary list, and you’ll reap massive dividends, especially if your practice focuses on a narrow niche of cases, such as D.U.I.’s, drug possession cases, or slip and fall cases.  With a few well invested hours, you’ll be able to create vocabulary lists that you can use over and over again.

2. Eliminate jargon
In addition, you should eliminate the jargon that jurors don’t understand, as well as any “cop-speak.”  What sounds official to us actually sounds pompous and asinine to our jurors.  Here are some examples of other phrases you’ll want to modify or eliminate:

Instead of… Consider…
“Exited his vehicle” “Got out of his car”
F.S.T., L.E.O., D.R.E., B.A.T., B.A.C., B.O.L.O., P.U.F.O.D., C.S.T., etc. Use the full terms
“Officer Safety” “Because I didn’t want to get run over or get shot”
“High rate of speed” Speed is a rate, so it’s okay
to just say, “High speed”
“Tag”
(i.e. “ran the tag”)
“License plate”
“Transported” “Taken to”
“Extract” “Pull from,” “Remove”
“Proceed”
(“He proceeded to the intersection of…”)
“Went to”
“Observe”
(“I observed the vehicle swerving”)
“Saw”
“Fail to maintain a single lane” “Swerve,”
“Weave back and forth”
“Identify”
(“I identified myself as an officer…”)
“I told him who I was”

3. Eliminate “illegal” words
Finally, you should eliminate any words that will be properly objected to (and possibly cause a mistrial) because they’ve been “outlawed” by appellate caselaw (the following example relates to Florida DUI cases):

Instead of… Consider…
“Field Sobriety Tests” “Field Sobriety Exercises”
“Odor of Alcohol”
(alcohol has no smell)
“Odor of an Alcoholic Beverage”
“Pass,” “Fail,” “Standardized” You just can’t say these words
State v. Meador 674 So.2d 826
(Fla. 4th DCA 1996)

Right now, invest an hour or two to prepare your vocabulary lists.  Don’t hesitate until next week, because you’ll never get around to it.  Invest the time to prepare your vocabulary list right now, and you’ll dramatically improve the persuasive power of your arguments.  Regardless of whether you’re trying to persuade a judge, a jury, an arbitrator, a mediator, or even your own client, make sure you’ve picked the words that best sell your case.  Good luck!

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4 thoughts on “Trial Lawyers: Choose Your Next Word Carefully!

  1. Extremely important and a must have information for every practising lawyer. Aspects of practice which have been somewhat obscure and mysterious are now crystal clear. In a nutshell, litigation has been made uncomplicated.

  2. Extremely important and a must have information for every practising lawyer. Aspects of practice which has been somewhat obscure and mysterious are now crystal clear. In a nutshell, litigation has been made uncomplicated.

  3. Elliot, brilliant as usual, right on the money, jurors are usually not people with little if any exposure to the law, so KISS works, keep it simple stupid.

    Keep em coming.

    Marie