The Art of Ineffective Communication

Are my ABA fees paying for this?

File photo of Kenneth P. Nolan

I was reading the American Bar Association website today, and saw an article titled “The Art of Effective Communication” by Kenneth P. Nolan of Speiser Krause. I know my communication skills aren’t always great (my father, an English and communications professor, tells me I should have taken speech in college), and I thought the article might have a few tips for being a more effective communicator. Instead, I found a curmudgeonly old white guy telling young men and women working as attorneys to get off his lawn.

The gist of Mr. Nolan’s article is that young people can’t write, and (evidently due to their entitlement culture) while they may be creative, they never bothered to learn skills like spelling and penmanship.

Quoting from the article, Mr. Nolan explains that back in his day,

“The core curriculum stretched for more than two years. Those in charge knew our vistas — usually a neighbor’s underwear drying on a clothes line — were limited in scope and diversity. An educated person read Dickens, appreciated a Beethoven symphony, could converse in French.”

Disregarding the voyeuristic underwear analogy, it appears Nolan is trying to say that today’s young people aren’t all that educated, because they didn’t have Dickens, Beethoven, and French beaten into them. However, it’s not that we don’t learn anything, but that our education has also allowed us to appreciate Maxine Hong-Kingston, Sun-Ra, and learn Arabic. Certainly, my South Asian Subaltern Studies, Women Writers of Japan, and Animal Behavior courses are all outside the author’s educational canon, but I feel richer for having taken them. Our educations have allowed us to explore culture beyond Nolan’s ossified markers of white-Anglo cultural “education.” Sure, I never did learn how to speak French (though we did have French classes in middle school), but as a native-English speaker, I think speaking (and reading, and writing) Japanese might be a greater accomplishment.

“Thankfully, computers dominate — I cringe whenever I see anyone under 40 write. Not only is their penmanship illegible, but they can’t even hold a pen properly.”

I mean, I took Japanese calligraphy for a year, so I actually can hold a pen or pencil (or brush) just fine, thanks. Disregarding my individual experience though, with a moment of reflection, it’s obvious that skills can be come less useful as technology changes. The world hasn’t ended because young people can no longer ride a horse, string a bow, or build their own houses.

As a side note, it must be nice when the thing that makes you cringe is “anyone under 40” writing with a pen. You know what makes me cringe? Videos of black Americans being shot and calls for my parents to be kicked out of the country.

“I know, I know — ideas are important, creativity is paramount, not whether little Johnny knows the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re.” All writing is praised, no matter how many grammatical errors. Hey, old-timer, haven’t you heard of spell-check?”

Perhaps more youthful emphasis on creativity would have created an empathetic Kenneth P. Nolan who is able to recognize the absurdity of what he’s writing, even if it’s grammatically correct. Nolan’s article is so narrow-minded, so blissfully unaware of how the world has changed since the 1970s, that it would adorable if it weren’t so condescending. Even if this make-believe little Johnny confuses “there,” “their”, and “they’re” (I don’t by, the way), perhaps Johnny’s elementary school education broadened his heart and mind by teaching him that his opinions and perspective aren’t necessarily the only right ones.

All writing isn’t praised, if it has grammatical errors — certainly not the case in the undergraduate English courses my father teaches, nor in law school (you know, that place that presumably all of Nolan’s audience spent three or so years).

A recent screencap from the ABA web site
“This is the same misguided philosophy where every player receives a trophy, where everyone plays in every game, where no one keeps score. No kid is ever told, as I was, you stink; I’m not picking you. No one fails; all are gifted.”

On the subject of “misguided philosophy,” remember dear reader, that Kenneth P. Nolan is directing this piece to law students and lawyers who competed to get into undergrad, who competed to get into law school, and then who passed the bar (and are now competing for legal jobs in this post-apocalyptic legal job market). We aren’t all white men who were guaranteed jobs (“After graduating from Brooklyn Law School in 1977, Ken joined the firm”) after law school in the 1970s and therefore can grouse about “young people today.”

Of course, Mr. Nolan doesn’t have any actual examples of everyone receiving a trophy or being called gifted. I sure as hell wasn’t, I didn’t make law journal or my school’s litigation tournament. The former failure motivated me to write my article on Winny, which was published in a law journal, though.

At least these guys are funny
“If you’re ever on a college campus, however, you’ll notice most students walk to class staring at their iPhones.”

Has this guy ever been to a college campus? When students reach those classes, those phones get put away, or people are kicked out. In one class I had at Emory, if a student’s phone rang the entire class was dismissed for the day (any grades for that day were automatically zero).

“If you work at Google or Apple, no one cares if you dress like a slob. But you’re a lawyer, so dress accordingly.”

Actually being out here, no, people do care. I suppose Mr. Nolan, a New York lawyer, has to score some points at the expense of these California companies, but working in tech out here, people tend to be dressed well. Compared to Internet search and iPhones, I sure don’t seem to be getting much value from Speiser Krause (or the articles on the ABA website), though.

The thing is, I clicked on Mr. Nolan’s article because I wanted to communicate more effectively. However, the author’s shortsighted ranting and inability to consider that the situation from a young attorney’s perspective today is different from his completely soured me on his actual message. For an article about effective communication, Nolan’s methods were remarkably ineffective.

As we learned in law school, you convey mastery of your subject by talking down to your audience

Perhaps I’m wrong. After all, Mr. Nolan became editor of Litigation the year I was born, no one’s ever called me a “Super Lawyer”, and I never came in third place in the New York Law Journal fiction writing contest. However, to me, communication isn’t just about penmanship and memorizing spelling (in the same way education isn’t just about Dickens, or Beethoven, or French). Communication is about being able to look outside yourself and empathize with your audience, something my upbringing and education instilled in me. That doesn’t mean mollycoddling your readers, but it does mean being able to recognize that your experiences and views aren’t the only valid ones. While it’s a neat trick to complain about young people to make yourself seem wise, you risk alienating your audience if they see through the ruse.

And I get it. When you’re set in your ways, change is hard. For example, I don’t completely understand how elementary school students are being taught math under Common Core these days. But I realize that even though it’s different perhaps it’s better for today’s students. After all, if I had been taught math in a way that made more sense, perhaps I would have fulfilled my immigrant parents’ dream of becoming a doctor, and not have to read this nonsense from ancient attorneys.

Normally, that stubborn belief in one’s own correctness might not matter. As the references to Abe Simpson suggest, Nolan’s article isn’t far from the stereotype of an old (white) man terrified by change, and most old people aren’t causing too much damage (yet). However, attorneys like the author are the ones advising, choosing, and hiring new attorneys. Future law students: If you needed any more reasons to not become a lawyer, I’ll remind you that fossils like Nolan will be your boss (and if you don’t think it can happen to you, I had a supervising attorney that unabashedly used the word “Moslems” in front of me in 2014).

Finally, I’m reminded of a quote from Ali bin Abi Taleb (he’s the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, Mr. Nolan, not the special at your local gyro place).

Do not raise your children the way parents raised you; they were born for a different time.

Mr. Nolan, please consider the fact that we’re attorneys for a different time the next time you decide to write for the ABA’s Side Bar column.