During my third year of law school, I was a member of the Lamar Inn of Court at Emory Law School. For those unfamiliar with the American Inns of Court, it’s an organization based on the English Inns of Court and designed to bring together law students (known in the Inn as pupils), junior practitioners (barristers), and senior practitioners (masters) for education and socialization, with an exclusive focus on litigation. The Inns of Court, during my involvement at least, created opportunities to rub elbows with some of the celebrated litigators in town, rising stars, federal and state judges — it was a big deal. I was thrilled to be included, and I was especially excited to have my opportunity to take a “stand up” role in the first meeting, which focused on voir dire.
I will never forget “striking” that jury. My team had planned our strategy, and we knew what kind of person we did and didn’t want on the panel. The lawyers on my team took the lead, of course, and then permitted me to take a crack at it after they’d given an example of how voir dire should be done. After I’d asked a few questions, I wanted to follow up with one of the jurors, a middle-aged man with kind eyes and a French surname that ended in “-et.” But I couldn’t remember how it was pronounced! Was it the true French “ay” ending, or an Anglicized “ett”? I took a guess, and what a lesson it turned out to be.
I tried, of course, the split the difference, but committed to the Anglicized version in the end. And as soon as I pronounced that “T,” I saw his face fall. He recovered quickly and answered my question, but in that split-second I learned: you don’t massacre someone’s name if at all possible to avoid it.
After we finished the exercise and the participants and observers had a chance to offer feedback, the juror spoke and said that he felt such warmth from me initially, but that my fumbling mispronunciation of his name broke that. Not fatally — he said he would have listened to me had it been a real trial, but I lost a point there. And for years, when I’d see him on the TV news (he was a frequent guest because of his work) I would pronounce his name and feel terrible. Names really do matter.
And now, I understand. My last name is the unwieldy Fleming-Brown. I try not to mind when someone refers to me as “Julie Brown,” but the truth is that I do mind. I know what a pain it is to give my two last names, but my name matters to me, and its disregard does not go unnoticed.
The point of this rant is to remind you to be careful when using someone’s name. Almost everyone likes to hear his or her own name, and even if the hearing isn’t a pleasure, hearing the name butchered is unpleasant. It’s a small thing and shouldn’t be a strike against the fumbler, but it is.
So, whether you’re meeting a new client, a potential client, someone at a networking function, someone you’re interviewing or by whom you’re being interviewed, be sure you catch the name. Get it right. If you don’t hear it well, or if you aren’t sure how to pronounce it, just ask. Most people will be kind. Using someone’s name correctly is a sign of respect, and mispronunciation or abbreviation can be taken as a sign of disrespect even if it isn’t so intended. Pay attention.
Julie A. Fleming, J.D., A.C.C. has coached countless lawyers, has practiced law for over 15 years, speaks for bar associations and law firms, and publishes a weekly email newsletter.