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Choose Your Words Carefully

A s editors of an international legal publication, we often encounter different voices, writing styles, and grammar preferences. Even within English, a lingua franca of global business, there are variances. The Docket reached out to lawyers in various countries, including several nations where English is the primary language, to understand the different legal terms they prefer. Here is a summary of what we heard.

In the United States, the terms “attorneys” and “lawyers” are used interchangeably. A lawyer might denote someone with a law degree who is not practicing law, such as a real estate agent, a legal journalist, or law firm marketer. Attorneys, in general, are practicing lawyers. In Australia, “attorney” is not used – unless someone is watching an American show on Netflix.

In Canada, the connotations are different. Aliya Ramji, general counsel of Figure 1 in Toronto, says she thinks of an attorney as someone who can make decisions on your behalf (after consulting with the client, of course) – someone with a power of attorney.

Commonwealth nations, such as Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, and Canada, have two types of lawyers: barristers and solicitors. Teresa Cleary, general counsel and company secretary for the Australian Institute of Company Directors, says an easy way to remember the difference is that the “b” in barrister also stands for “bar,” meaning they go to court to present the case. Solicitors spend more time out of court.

Theo Kapodistrias, a lawyer at the University of Tasmania, notes that the terms are used slightly differently on his island. In Tasmania, the law is a “fused profession, so everyone is both a barrister and solicitor. In Tasmania, there is nothing preventing someone who works as a solicitor from appearing in court,” he says.

Idioms and turns of phrase can also be problematic. Cleary remembers telling an American lawyer that she was “under the pump” – meaning she was busy or under pressure at work, a throwback to Australia’s colonial days when angry mobs would restrain a person beneath a pump and pour water on them (or so it’s thought). The American was puzzled. The expression is similar to “behind the eight-ball” in American English, which is an unfavorable position in the game of pool.

Holidays are another tricky area. As globalization increases, more people are celebrating and becoming aware of  holidays and holy days in other parts of the word. Lunar New Year is popular in many Asian countries where the calendar is traditionally aligned with the phases of the moon. These new year celebrations are now practiced in many Western countries as the proverbial “cultural melting pot” combines traditions from ancestral homelands with present-day diaspora realities.

Dragon dances are a common sight during the Lunar New Year in Australia, says Scott Long, director of legal services at the University of Adelaide. In Toronto, Figure 1’s Ramji notes that there’s a Lunar New Year parade a few blocks from her office.

Most other Canadian holidays are like ones in the United States, she says, with the notable exception of Thanksgiving, which occurs a month earlier because the harvest comes earlier in the northern latitudes. Long, the Adelaide-based lawyer, cautions not to schedule any deadlines between Christmas and the first two weeks of January because most of the country is on extended leave. He says it would be a “rookie mistake” to do that because it would show a level of unfamiliarity with the country’s clients and coworkers.

In India, there are three national holidays: Republic Day, on January 26, which commemorates the adoption of the constitution of India in 1950; Independence Day, on August 15; and October 2, which is the birthday of Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi.

But there are also holidays that are observed in different states or regions, depending on the dominant religion of the area (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsee (Zoroastrian) and Christian) and many local festivals. When setting up a schedule with Indian partners, it’s wise to ask about any holidays that might affect the working calendar.

And then there’s caffeinated beverages. In Australia, according to our many contributors, a cappuccino is sprinkled with chocolate. Who knew?


The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.