A Lawyer’s Real Job is to be a Translator


Communication skills are important for anyone in the legal profession (which is why I keep writing about them).

In fact, I personally believe that communication is one of the most important skills that a lawyer needs develop, and needs to continuing developing throughout their career.

Over the last little while, I’ve been tinkering with a new proposition about the role of lawyers in communication, and I’ve come up with this: lawyers are, in essence, translators.


Let’s take a look at what I mean.

What’s a Translator Do?

You probably know the answer to this, and it’s not a trick question.

They listen to one thing, understand its meaning, and then put it in a form to be consumed by another party.

Of course, the best translators don’t just copy the words – they get the tone, the nuance, and the subtle variations in language that are called for to ensure that the true intent of the original is kept in the translated version.

Translating the Law

This is the most obvious application of the principle. We read the law, incomprehensible as it sometimes is (or as it has become) and we decipher that law for others.

Those others might be our client (in the case of advice), our colleagues (in the case of legal research), a judge (in the case of submissions) or the other side (in the case of blatant ignorance).

Translating the law is probably the only thing that we have learned to do from university in terms of effective communication.  Law School honed our ability to read legislation and cases, figure out what they mean, and have some idea of how that applies to the situation we are faced with.

That said, where we haven’t been well trained is in the second half of the translation exercise – output. Expressing our intellectual conclusions in a persuasive, practical way that our audience will appreciate and understand – that’s a whole different kettle of fish to the cerebral endeavour of legal research.

Translating our Instructions

Of course, sometimes our clients tell us to do things. Depending on their legal experience, they often do so in what we call “lay person’s” language.

Our job is to translate those instructions in two different ways:

  • By fitting them into the legal framework – for example, “go get my money” might have a different result outside a law office then it does inside the law office,
  • By adopting a language and style appropriate to an officer of the Court, and not necessarily one that might be used inside a pub.

The result is that what our client tells us to do gets strained, filtered and ultimately translated into what we know is or is not possible in a legal sense.

In effect – we’ve translated our instructions into the legal system.

Translating Procedure

In Queensland, we have a set of Court rules called the Uniform Civil Procedure Rules. No matter where you practice you have something similar.

In theory, they set out what’s going to happen if you sue someone.

In practice, have you ever said to a client “just read the UCPR, you’ll find them as a set of subordinate legislation under the Supreme Court Act – then you’ll know what’s going on?”.

Similarly, we also translate our experience for our clients – there are any number of human factors in legal decision making that are simply not present when it comes to reading the procedural rules.

The rules, for example, don’t tell you what is going to happen at a first hearing. Our experience, and our knowledge of the Judge might, however, make us 99% sure that what will happen is X, Y and Z.

Translating Reality

Unfortunately, some clients have optimistic views about what the legal system can provide them. I don’t blame them for this, and it would be nice if every wronged client could get their proper and just outcome.

But that’s not the reality.

Sometimes the reality is that the client can’t afford your legal services.

Sometimes the reality is that the law doesn’t offer your client any solutions.

Sometimes the reality is that your client’s case is terrible, contrary to their own view.

Your job is to interject some reality into your client’s life… sometimes.

As a general rule they won’t like it very much – but you have to do it anyway.

Translation is Two Way

Here’s the kicker of all of this commentary though – translation is two way. In order to be a good translator, you need to know both languages extremely well – otherwise, when you go to translate, the message will get garbled and something will go wrong.

Many lawyers know the legal language very well. Its tone, language and procedures all come as second nature.

But what about the other languages? How well do you understand your client? What about their non-verbal languages? What about their emotional languages?

Are you able to translate those too?

So for today I want you to consider this – are you proficient in all the languages you need to know to be a good translator?

Happy Lawyering!

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