Words and Phrases (Not Quite) Legally Defined

“Words are the currency of law,” our professor said, capping off our block’s introduction to legal history. Who gets what, when, and how — that, he said, was the meaning of power, and it was a meaning that law could write and change with mere words.

I was riveted. As a recent literature graduate just two weeks into an exploratory semester of law, hearing the field cast in the frame of language felt like the answer I thought it would take months, if not years, to find.

Consequently, I left law school soon after.

In the days that followed, a good bit of my time was spent explaining why. Growing up, I had a steady diet of words. I was active in campus journalism; I dabbled in creative writing; my mom regaled everyone with stories of the ridiculous methods I used just to read books in the shower. In college, I studied literature, and I loved everything from the endless readings to the printer-killing papers. The natural next step, people often told me, was law school. It made sense: law is a field built on words. Words, in a way, were my life; but as I have come to learn, the reverse is truer, for me as for everyone else.

Our lives speak for us, too. Without saying a thing, someone who rises from poverty to become a titan of industry tells us of hope, grit, and perseverance, just as college dropouts who go on to change the landscape of technology tell us of innovation and possibility. When I was a kid, people would ask me if I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. Many children, at one point or another, get asked the same. “A doctor, so I can heal others,” we might have said; or, “A lawyer, so I can defend people.” Often, though, what those questions really want to know is: how will your life speak of achievement, of distinction, of success?

Medicine or law? Engineering or nursing? College or searching for a job? Whatever the options, to pick one or the other (or to select something different altogether) is to communicate your circumstances, beliefs, values, and aspirations in distinct and specific ways. Word choice matters, whether we’re writing office memos or the stories of our lives. And hearing law characterized as words that day in class, I knew—those were not the words I wanted to write my life with.

Choices, like any language, carry their share of clichés: familiar, established expressions that we can use to convey certain notions or impressions with ease. In writing their lives, some people deploy these phrases deliberately, consciously, purposefully. That’s thoughtfulness and self-awareness, and that’s worth admiring. But many others, myself included, don’t put as much thought into it. Instead we punch in these ready-made phrases, driven by an unexamined belief in their certainty and value.

Clichés are clichés because they are everywhere; they are everywhere because they worked well enough to have been accepted as the default. But that, I’ve learned, is what makes clichés so dangerous: they’ve become automatic. They’ve become the options and paths that we can (and often do) take without thinking; they’ve become the easiest way to pad our autobiographies without having these mean anything to us, let alone to anyone else. In his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, the author David Foster Wallace discussed the notion of “default settings,” noting that these were insidious not because they were evil or sinful, but because they were unconscious. This same lack of deliberate engagement blinds us to our potentially habitual surrender to the automatic, and leaves us with a vocabulary of choices that has been reduced to the most limited of entries.

“What is the ratio?” another professor once asked us, trying to steer our block to a more thorough discussion of the rationale for a court decision. “What is the ratio?” He’d paused, looked out the window, and grinned. “‘What is the ratio?’ When I die, I’ll have them put that on my tombstone.” It’s a memory I’m going to carry with me far beyond the bounds of law school, for two reasons.

First, it’s a good reminder of what a life written through deliberate choice sounds like. Here was someone who chose, every day, to teach students how to think, no matter how vexing the task often got. That is, here was someone who knew what message he wanted to send, and who affirmed, every day, his choice of how to say it. Whether or not our professor did put the question on his tombstone, it was something that his decisions and actions would continue to ask long after he’d carried them out. In a way, we are all our own epitaphs.

Second, there is the question itself. What is the ratio? Why do our lives say what they say, and why do they say it in that way? It’s difficult, if not impossible, to answer this with complete certainty. But to even ask at all is to recognize that our lives can convey something valuable.

I know I want to build a life that speaks of service, honor, and excellence. Others have done and are choosing to do so through law, as others will also choose to do in the future. But I came to law carried along by my default settings, and no one can communicate service, honor, or excellence by simply living out a cliché. After all, if we want our lives to speak with fluency, meaning, and conviction, then our work doesn’t stop at finding something worthwhile to say. It’s equally important to consider how we choose to say it. What we convey and embody, and how: that, it seems, is the meaning of character—and as my brief stint in law school helped show me, it is a meaning that demands to be written and shaped by choices made in nothing less than the grand manner.