June 01, 2015

Sidebar: The Art of Effective Communication

Becoming an effective trial lawyer requires a worldliness that evolves slowly.

Kenneth P. Nolan

Download a printable PDF of this article.

In grammar school, I always received A’s for penmanship. With a fat leaded pencil, I doggedly practiced the Palmer method on reams of white lined paper. Years were spent memorizing spelling words, diagramming sentences, mastering when to use a semicolon, learning the difference between a gerund and a present participle. At least once a week, I squirmed at our tiny kitchen table desperate to find 150 words to complete an English composition or a book report.

In high school and college, speech classes—where our exasperated teachers begged us to lose our Brooklyn accents and enunciate as though we were raised on a corn farm in Iowa—were mandatory. Alas, according to my daughters, those fearless speech teachers failed miserably. “Did you hear what he just said?” Lizzy noted as if I wasn’t sitting next to her. “He wants to know if I want soder or seltza.” Everyone laughs. “Dad, you have the worst Brooklyn accent.”

It didn’t matter if you attended a Catholic elementary and high school or a public college, where I was often the sole gentile in the class. The liberal arts curriculum was the same: science, math, language, history, literature, writing, speech, art, and music. Heck, Brooklyn College required three semesters of gym class. The times were truly a-changin’ when in the late sixties, the college eliminated the requirement that you had to swim across the pool in order to graduate.

The core curriculum stretched for more than two years. Those in charge knew our vistas—usually a neighbor’s underwear drying on a clothes line—were limited in scope and diversity. An educated person read Dickens, appreciated a Beethoven symphony, could converse in French. We were exposed to a broad expanse of disciplines so our knowledge would be comprehensive. Whether we became a doctor, a teacher, or a cop, certain fundamental skills were required—the ability to think, read, write, and speak. Coincidentally, these are most important for those of us (or “we”) who practice law.

Thankfully, computers dominate—I cringe whenever I see anyone under 40 write. Not only is their penmanship illegible, but they can’t even hold a pen properly. I know, I know—ideas are important, creativity is paramount, not whether little Johnny knows the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re.” All writing is praised, no matter how many grammatical errors. Hey, old-timer, haven’t you heard of spell-check?

This is the same misguided philosophy where every player receives a trophy, where everyone plays in every game, where no one keeps score. No kid is ever told, as I was, you stink; I’m not picking you. No one fails; all are gifted.

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