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How To Work With Jargon

Jury consultants don’t get many questions that have easy answers, but here’s one, and lawyers ask it all the time. How do you handle difficult vocabulary – industry, technical, or legal jargon – with the jury? Remarkably often, the lawyer phrases the question as though there were only two possible answers, something like this: “Should I bore them by explaining [the lawyer usually shifts into a pedantic monotone here] exactly what a colloidal dispersion [or whatever] is, or should I just not say it?”

Neither of the above. Here’s the answer, in a singsong form for easy memorization. Teach it if they need it, teach it when they need it, translate if they don’t.

Step 1: Do they need it?

Jargon falls into two categories: words the jury needs to understand to do its job, and words it doesn’t. So,

  • In a patent case, if “solute” is a key word in the patent claims, then the jurors need to know what it means in order to know whether those claims are infringed. If not, you can just say “the stuff that’s dissolved in the liquid.”
  • In a medical malpractice case, if “bilateral hemothorax” is part of the key entry in the patient chart that allegedly shows the doctor was negligent, then you’d better teach it. Otherwise you can say “blood in the membrane that surrounds the lungs.”
  • In a criminal case, if “overt act” is the key phrase in the conspiracy jury instruction, then you have to teach it. If it’s not, there’s no reason you’d ever say that.

Don’t worry about the words you have to teach. Jurors routinely tell us they enjoy learning, and that they admire lawyers who are good teachers. Teach quickly and clearly, without condescension, and don’t teach more than you need to, and you’ll be fine.

Step 2: When do they need it?

Teach no word before its time. Patent cases are a great example here too. If the defendant is arguing that the plaintiff’s patent is no good because the patent’s supposedly big innovation either was already known or was obvious from what was already known, then the jury instructions are going to use “obvious,” “anticipated,” and “prior art” in ways jurors have not seen them before. You need to teach those – but the jurors won’t need them until they read the jury instructions, so you don’t need to teach them until then. In opening and during the evidence, you’ll be swamping jurors with things like “solute”; the last thing you need is more jargon. “Already known” and “obvious from what was already known” will do just fine to explain the defenses until you get to closing argument.

Step 3: How do I translate it?

When jurors don’t need to learn jargon, you don’t need to teach it. Just replace it with a nice clear phrase — which sounds easy, but for many lawyers that’s the hardest part. If you’ve been immersed in your patent or med mal or criminal or any other case for months, the person most in danger of speaking in jargon may be you. If you’re in danger of this, find a bright seventh-grader, pay her handsomely for her time, and explain your case to her until you’ve got it right.

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