A headline in the ABA Journal recently says “Bilingual Lawyers in Demand.” If you are a non-lawyer reader of this, you might be saying to yourself that all lawyers seem to be bilingual – Legalese and what the rest of us speak. Other than my particular dialect of from the sticks “hick,” I do consider myself confined to the singular langauge of English. (Four years of high school French did not stick and my Spanish immersion CDs have yet to make me fluent enough to advertise my infant-level of proficiency.)
Nevertheless, Legalese is not a language. If you have legal documents you don’t understand, you need and deserve explanations. Last week, I had a conference with an estate planning client for whom I prepared a will and some other estate planning documents a few years ago. The client needed to make some changes because of changes in his life circumstances, but during the conference it became clear that the client needed further explanation of exactly what he had directed through the documents prepared just a few years ago. I explained. The client then said “Oh yeah, that’s what’s wanted, but did not understand what was actually written.” If you have documents prepared by a lawyer for you, it is incumbent on you to make sure you understand what you are signing. Do not sign just because the lawyer has prepared the document and assume that it is correct. Lawyers are human; even the best of us will make mistakes occasionally. Working with a lawyer in preparing an estate plan (or prosecuting a divorce action, injury suit, or setting up a business or any of another 1,000 things) has to be a team effort. Do not allow yourself to be frightened by language we as lawyers use without asking about why. Sometimes the words are simply necessary terms of art. Sometimes, though, it is just a stilted manner of speaking that has been passed down in innumerable forms that we might be able to say better and more simply. Be part of your legal team. Ask.
Robert A. Wells
Gabriel, Berry, Weston & Wells L.L.P.
Attorneys at Law
214 Commerce Place
Greensboro, NC 27401