Using Tone to your Advantage

I play the guitar. It is one of those non-law-related things in my life that keeps me sane. If you’ve ever played or seen an electric guitar, you’ll know that there are knobs on there, like these...


The knobs control the volume of the guitar’s output and the tone, or sound of the guitar through the amp. 

Tone knobs appear not only on the guitar but on guitar effects, that can substantially change how the guitar sounds...


And even on the guitar amplifier, which is what projects the guitar’s sound to the world...


Tone knobs can be wired to do different things but almost universally, they can be used to shape the guitar’s sound and help it harmonize with the other instruments that might be playing or become more pleasant to whoever happens to be listening. 

Tone Affects Content

One thing that I’ve learned over the years playing guitar is that how your guitar sounds greatly affects how the music is received. A great example of this is Steven’n’Seagulls’ cover of Thunderstruck by ACDC.

Same song, same notes and chords, but received very differently.  

That is what tone is all about. When you learn to play the guitar after you learn how to play the correct note on the correct string at the correct time, how you play that note becomes key to going from a mechanical action to an expressive art form. 

A Lawyer’s Tone Knob

So how does a lawyer adjust the practice of law tone knob? 

First off is just being aware. When you read that email or brief, maybe focus one read through on the effect of your word choice. Is the snark necessary? Probably not, though it can feel good. 

Second is knowing your audience. Is a Judge going to appreciate disrespectful language for the opposing party? We know Chief Justice Roberts sure doesn’t. Will your already terrified or anxious client benefit from you ramping up their emotions? Probably not. 

Third, remember that while words are a lawyer’s greatest tool, that can also be our downfall. A lawyer in California recently learned this the hard way. There is great value in the idea to “dance like no one is watching; email like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition.”

Fourth, is to add a little delay in your delivery. Returning to the guitar analogy, there is an effect called “delay” that essentially takes the note you played and echoes it back to you, kind of like when you yell in a canyon. Can you wait 10 minutes and read that email again before you send it? Can you draft that motion a day before it is due, giving you some much-needed distance and perspective in the editing process before you submit it? The delay between writing the actual words and sending them to the intended recipient can help catch any unintended meaning and reduce counterproductive emotional signals that will ultimately get in the way of achieving your client’s goals.