Stripping Down Bankruptcy Jargon


StrongarmA Credit Slips commenter recently asked that blog posts explain (or at least spell out) acronyms and specialist terminology. This inspired me to report back on a corporate bankruptcy terminology set that University of North Carolina Law students collaboratively produced last year (technically, a wiki) in business bankruptcy, an advanced transition-to-the-profession seminar. In both comments and emailsCredit Slips readers helped me expand the list of terms (and also offered great ideas for practical writing projects). So thanks again for your contributions, and thanks also to the Spring 2012 seminar alumni - some of whom are practicing bankruptcy law or clerking for bankruptcy courts right now, or headed there soon - who tackled the collaborative vocabulary project, and the entire seminar and its experimental elements, with such great spirit and a 100% perfect attendance record! So, some observations. 

Lest there be doubt, jargon pervades bankruptcy and commercial/financial law. For manageability's sake, our wiki maxxed out at about 50 terms - this was on top of all their other work, not quite in place of it - but easily could have doubled/tripled/quadrupled. And due to the seminar's business focus, this count excludes terms that primarily arise in consumer cases. Bankruptcy's intersection with so many areas of law and business contributes to terminology challenges, as some terms come from, say, employee compensation arrangements ("top hat" plans), or loan structures ("mezz" financing). In any event, the project was meant to increase the students' confidence in this field, cracking open the door to the club just a little bit more. But also, by researching and exploring the terms themselves, they get a sense of the derivation, reflecting the diverse ways that meaning coalesces around such terms. Sleep with the Bankruptcy Code under your pillow to your heart's content: it won't help learn most of these terms.

Any participants in a specialized field can recognize the utility of expediting communication about concepts through shorthand. But bankruptcy has some of its greatest legal and economic effects on non-specialist parties, and lawyers in other fields would be well served to at least recognize basic categories of bankruptcy issues. Using fancier terms or acronyms for basic ideas makes bankruptcy law seem harder to penetrate - for nonlawyers as well as lawyers - than it should be given its cross-cutting relevance. As in any field, jargon can exclude and help obscure the distributional impact of, say, statutory amendments that shift benefits from one group of stakeholders to another. An extensive amount of jargon also promotes, or is at least consistent with, an exceptionalist view of the bankruptcy system that I have come to believe is problematic.

Prompting emerging lawyers to increase their exposure to lingo is an important component to their educations, and I look forward to exploring additional methods of doing so (more on that below). But it leaves unresolved the question of the socially optimal level of jargon in a field with such widespread effects.

Some more pragmatic thoughts for teachers considering ways to boost students' language savvy in commercial law or bankruptcy. Perhaps your university uses Sakai for course websites? It has a wiki feature. Even for the youngest students, it did not seem intuitive (and even with support from my great instructional technology colleagues). New substantive terms + new confusing technology = less than optimal. Still was worthwhile, but it might be useful to explore other platforms before committing to that one. Also, the exclusionary power of jargon may chill the eagerness of people to jump onto the wiki to critique and correct each others' work product. We worked through this challenge as a group as we went along, but ideally it is something to consider before starting, taking into account class size, the culture of the law school, and other factors. Happy to discuss the experience more with teachers if anyone is interested.

Enough on jargon for today, except I'll make a final solicitation. If new terms have cropped up recently in your professional life, please keep me in mind! I'm still collecting.

 strong arm photo from shutterstock