As attorneys, working with words is an integral part of what we do. Oral and written advocacy can make or break a case. We are careful with our words to make sure that we are providing the best advocacy for our clients.
Due to the nature of our profession, we can appreciate the impact that words, and word choice, may have. The words of some of the most prominent court cases in our country’s history defined our governmental process and our society. As examples: Marbury v. Madison established the role of the judiciary in the United States; Plessy v. Ferguson made legal the “separate but equal” doctrine that regrettably legitimized racial segregation; Brown v. Topeka Board of Education effectively overturned Plessy v. Ferguson; Katzenbach v. McClung involved a claim of racial discrimination but was one of many cases to expand the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause; and Roe v. Wade, which extended the fundamental right to privacy under the Constitution to women’s reproductive rights.
Words are just as impactful outside the legal profession. Words have the power to help, to assist, to console, and to brighten someone’s day. Words also have the power to hinder, to hurt, to embarrass, and to defeat.
As Rudyard Kipling once said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
Words can inspire. They have the power to start a movement, or even a revolution. We need only look to our Declaration of Independence to see that. The ideals that led to the sentiments set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the foundation of our country, the Constitution, were inspired by the words of renowned philosophers and writers, such as John Locke, Thomas Paine, and George Mason. And those documents, in turn, inspire our love of country.
Words also have the power to dominate and destroy. Both the Nazis and the Soviet Union used words and propaganda to further their oppressive and destructive regimes. They also took action to silence the words and efforts of their opposition. Unfortunately, some governments and leaders use the same or similarly tactics still today.
In today’s digital age, the written word is being created, and then consumed by readers, in incomprehensible volumes on a minute-by-minute basis. Unfortunately, it can become easy in cyberspace and other media to forget about, or even become indifferent to, the impact of our words. Words still have the same power, even if there are more of them. They just reach and influence more people.
If our history has shown us anything, it is that words have, and always will, matter.
Pamela Reynolds is an associate attorney in the Rochester office of Littler Mendelson and president of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys.