Language can make or break a career. Once legendary Prof. N. L. Mitra had asked this in a class I was attending “Why do you think law firms gladly hire law students like you at a much higher salary than any other entry level job in the country?” After some cumulative head scratching by us, he gave us the answer himself: your command over the language.
Now remember, Prof. Mitra is just not another academic who has settled in the law school industry to live a charmed life and bask in the glory of setting up NLU Jodhpur. Apart from making it a success that it is now, he has also become a partner in one of the top and trusted firms in the country. He really knows what he is saying. People with good command over English are valuable to law firms. Knowledge of English works like an entry barrier, you can not join the big league unless how you speak and write is really up to the marks.
Anything less than flawless English is not good enough.
And it is not just law firms, it is pretty much anything you may do as a lawyer. Those with good command on English will do better than the rest. You maybe a staunch nationalist and resent having to learn English, but sorry, you are disadvantaged if your English is not good enough. People will even assume that you have low levels of intellectual ability. No matter how wrong they are, it will restrict your professional success. That’s how it works here, from interviews to get into college societies to job applications – you are slaughtered for less than perfect English.
Writing flawlessly is more important than speaking flawless English.
As far as a law student is concerned, usually writing perfect English is way more important than speaking. Making a mistake while speaking is still one thing, but making the same mistakes in writing is going to kill your reputation.
When I joined NUJS, fresh from a Bengali medium school where I studied for all my life until that point, I could not speak much English. My grammar was good, and vocabulary outstanding, because I had learnt these things by heart for the law entrance exams. Very quickly I learned how important it is to write error-free English.
Everyone has their pet mistakes that they think are correct usage. Friends do not point out of politeness, and strangers judge. One of the most important tools I had used to get rid of the mistakes was lists of Frequently Made Mistakes – which I found in English textbooks and the Internet. Till date, I can not say that I make no mistakes, but even if I do, those mistakes will be very, very rare and I always try to eliminate them.
Bad English will kill your reputation, and no one will take you seriously. People get distracted by errors, such as grammatical or spelling errors (even if they make the same mistakes themselves) or wrong usage of words and phrases. It can cost you a lot, so please pay attention. Identify and weed out mistakes, one by one. You could have a mission of identifying at least one mistake in your English every day. The point is to have a steadily improving knowledge of grammar.
I have a great vocabulary, now let’s show it off! (These guys are headed straight for hell)
The other killer mistake I find many people who have otherwise a good knowledge of English making is using arcane English! The worst thing is that these people seem to think they write better English than others because they are using words that are unknown to most people (and exotic, perhaps?) or because their sentence structures are very complex! This is just madness.
Do you want people to read what you are writing? Then make it easy for them to read. Use the most simple language. Make a rule for yourself: I shall write only simple sentences for the next one month. That should help you to cure this disease. Use a word that you would expect a 15-year-old kid to know unless you are writing an academic paper or constitution of your secret society! After all, 90% people stop learning new words when they become 15.
So is that what Command over English is?
However, while flawless English is necessary, but that is still not what Prof. Mitra means when he says “Command over English”. That’s a different and more advanced ball game. A lawyer’s task is often to be a nifty crafter of words that achieve targeted goals. Sometimes it is the attention of a regulator, other times sympathy of an arbitrator, or it could be approval of a board of directors. Everything, and most importantly, huge sums of money hang on balance on your word when you are a corporate lawyer at the highest level. Are you ready to take your command over English to that level? You must address the basics first.
I shall write more specifically on how and what sort of English you can use for Memos, Legal notes, exam papers, conference papers and so on in a follow-on post. If you are not already a subscriber, sign up for updates from this blog on top right corner of this page, and submit your name and email address.
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