The very first sentence of an article published some years ago in USA Today recently caught my attention: “Could three words change the way severely ill patients and their loved ones think about death?”.
The title of this article quickly gave the answer away “’Do not resuscitate’ vs. ‘allow natural death’”.
This article highlights not only how semantics can change a person’s reaction to a given situation (and potentially the ensuing consequences), but also the importance of using the right terms in the right context. As this article explains, while “allow natural death” may permit a family to better come to terms with the end of life of a loved one, “do not resuscitate” continues to carry specific meaning to the medical staff. Both expressions have their uses.
While this article reflects an issue important to the medical community, there is no doubt that the lesson applies to the legal profession as well. Indeed, where the adversarial process is so often triggered by an unfortunate choice of words, careful reflection on the appropriate expression is a worthwhile exercise. For example, in employment law, the words “dismissed” vs. “fired” vs. “termination of employment” can all have their uses and meanings and may ultimately affect the consequences. What other terms and expressions in the practice of law would benefit from this type of reflection?