Watch Your Language

wordlePick your words carefully.  Your clients will have to live with the results of your choice.

Our challenge as bankruptcy lawyers is to extract, analyze, and present a huge amount of financial information.

We have to get it from people who don’t really understand why we need it, nor the consequences of not getting it.

We are usually working for less money than the job we do is worth, so the more time it takes, the less we make.

But the fact remains, we need to get the right information from the person who has it, the debtor.

So, choose your words carefully.

The client with no “creditors”

An entrepreneur came in to talk with me about a Chapter 7 filing.  The business was toast and he was ready to start over.

At some point in the course of the business, there had been big investment and significant operations.  And the man was really anxious to file and get it over with.

I asked about his creditors.  He gave me four credit cards with balances small relative to the business enterprise he described.

I asked if he owed anyone else money.  No, he replied.

Did he have any other bills?  No, he insisted.

Was he certain?  Yes, he repeated.

I was getting frustrated because the story didn’t add up.  He was getting frustrated, either because he thought I didn’t believe him or I was too dense to understand.

Finally, I blurted out, “Is there anyone out there who wants to sue you?

Oh, yes,” came the response, “each one of my investors!

Bingo:  in the client’s mind, those investors weren’t “creditors.”  He didn’t “owe” them money.  They didn’t send him “bills”.

But they sure as hell wanted a piece of his hide.

My word choice had almost failed me.

Beyond creditor

In so many people’s mind, “creditors” are those who send you bills every month.  They are the entities to whom you acknowledge you owe money.

But if you ask your client who their “creditors” are, you risk getting just a subset of those to whom they have legal exposure.

If you task your client to fill in Schedule F on line, you almost assure that you get only the folks who send bills.

You miss the guarantee of someone else’s debt, perhaps the payroll tax exposure, the assigned business lease, the disputed tort claim.

You also risk that the client edits what you say to match his expectations.  “Creditors”, when the bankruptcy attorney asks, means “people whose claims I expect to discharge”.

So, choose your words carefully. Choose words that are expansive.  Or repetitive.

Think about the ways that laymen sort and categorize things.

Use words that don’t fit into little boxes in your client’s head, that invite him to skip over information outside of that box that you need.

The discharge may ride on your word choice.

Image courtesy of Flickr and Patti Haskins.

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