Industry-specific buzzwords and acronyms can complicate cases for solicitors. Asking the right questions is paramount.

We have all been there – you are exploring the circumstances of a matter with a client and find yourself listening to a series of acronyms, business-speak and insider buzzwords that might as well be Klingon for all the sense it makes. Your client, arms folded, is speaking in short, clipped sentences and from their challenging look clearly expects you to understand what they are saying. 

What do you do? You don’t want to look stupid but at the same time you need to understand what you are being told if you are going to offer the best advice.

With disputes in the financial services sector currently dominating the litigation market, dealing with industry jargon has come to the fore. But the reality is that it is not just financial services and products that have a large amount of jargon – every business has its own specialist language.

When they use jargon

As an expert accountant I am often required to report upon complex financial circumstances or accounting transactions in specialist business sectors and assist lawyers in understanding the financial consequences attending a series of events. A key part of my role in helping the court and my instructing solicitor is to explain the position using language that will be readily understood by a reader who is probably neither an accountant or experienced at working in the business sector being considered.

I recently met with individuals involved in two different matters, both of whom adopted the arms-folded stance I referenced earlier but, it soon became clear, for very different reasons. 

The first was head of product development, was both nervous and uncomfortable about being involved in a legal process, regularly spoke with colleagues using the technical language that was proving difficult for me to understand and responded to queries with passion and directness. 

The second individual was a finance director, was equally uncomfortable but rarely engaged with the question actually posed; instead seeking refuge in a response overflowing with technical jargon but often unrelated to the point at issue. There was minimal eye contact and any supplementary question led to a repetition of the original jargon albeit in a slightly different order or context.

What can you do?

So we come back to the question of what to do – of course you have a number of options. Faced with these circumstances you might decide to nod wisely in what seems to be all of the right places, make copious, verbatim notes and then spend a few hours on Wikipedia figuring out exactly what you were being told. 

Others might view the potential discovery of a knowledge gap in their professional armour as career changing and will go into defensive mode by asking highly specific closed questions tantamount to short statements with the objective of endeavouring to assert a strong position.

However, the only tenable position is to be open and friendly and tell the person that you are dealing with that you are not familiar with all of the industry jargon and its associations. In order to make sure you understand exactly what is being said so that you can consider how best to proceed and where potential problems lie you may have to ask them to explain or clarify certain terms. 

Of course, this takes confidence but a reasonable individual will not object and will recognise that in order to do your job properly you have to understand exactly what you are dealing with. If you encounter resistance or annoyance to this perfectly reasonable request you should consider how the person you are speaking to might fair if they are required to give evidence in a formal hearing where they will almost certainly be asked to provide clarification.

They may well struggle.

What is behind the jargon?

Back to my two individuals. For the first matter and with a smile and open body language I advised that I was going to need help to understand all of the points being made – the individual I was speaking to visibly relaxed, commented that it was reassuring to find someone who wanted to properly understand the business and the difficulties it had faced and thereafter couldn’t do enough to help in a very constructive meeting. 

In the second matter the same approach yielded an increasingly defensive position and a reluctance to explain any jargon used – it transpired that the reason the business had experienced a loss was because the finance director (the person we were dealing with) had failed to properly effect and account for a series of transactions.

The extensive use of jargon was a defence that the FD was using to try and hide incompetence – a transgression akin to pretending to understand something when in reality you don’t.

As David Cameron would no doubt agree, using jargon without being sure that you have got it right can be embarrassing – LOL.

Paul Smethurst is a forensic partner at chartered accountancy firm Carter Backer Winter LLP