Law in Contemporary Society

Law-talk v. Lawyer-speak

-- By JoshuaHochman - 16 Apr 2010

A little simplification would be the first step toward rational living, I think. - 50 Cent

You shouldn't throw stones if you live in a glass house, and if you got a glass jaw you should watch your mouth 'cause I'll break your face. - Eleanor Roosevelt

Throughout my 1L year, learning to be a lawyer has been an intimidating experience. The weight of tradition that is strapped to the back of every 1L is extremely taxing to somebody who doesn't know what being a lawyer is. The attorneys depicted in the chapters of Lawrence Joseph's Lawyerland provide a refreshing, blunt clarity to a profession that is too often shrouded in formalities. Exposure to the ways in which actual lawyers speak about the law eases the angst I have felt about my future career.


When Robinson is called "vulgar" by the federal prosecutor, his “fucking vulgar” reply incorporates enough dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system to reframe the term. Though this is a secondhand account, Robinson's story depicts the prosecutor's misappropriated attention. Why is maintaining the appearance of justice and civility more important than talking about what is really going on?

Robinson Breaks Through the Charade

If I had talked like Robinson in a typical law school class, I would have likely been chided for not speaking as a lawyer would. By learning the law solely through the emotionless language of judicial opinions, statutes, and rules, the formality of law talk can seem too far removed from reality. This process can stifle creative legal thinking by forcing students only to consider the formal, “legal” strategies when thinking about how to be an advocate. Consider, for example, if Robinson had lacked any knowledge about the manner in which the cards had been stacked against his "definitely dumb, not really bad" client, he would have been less cynical, perhaps, and certainly less prone to resorting to expletives. However, if he had refused to exploit every aspect of the system and merely complied with formalities of the legal process, he would have disserved his client. He would have traded away his effectiveness and livelihood. His bite comes across as essential to the career path he has chosen. Which Robinson would you want defending you?

Issues facing clients might, and probably should, affect their advocates in a powerful way. I read Robinson's vulgar language as a manifestation of a stronger personal connection with his casework; a nice change from my casebooks' stale discussion of legal principles that supposedly teach me how to be a lawyer.


The snarky banter flying across the table at Dean & Deluca in "Cerriere's Answer" provides another redefinition of lawyerly conduct. Tharaud and Cerriere, two attorneys on opposite ends of labor and employment law disputes, provoke one another in an exchange that follows a settlement of their case.

Getting Under One's Skin

The discussion between Tharaud and Cerriere shows two different career paths that are linked by a similar, combative world view. It is clear that these two attorneys work and thrive on opposite sides of the same coin. They both seem to know the repercussions of their clients' behavior and have chosen their sides accordingly.

These realities come to light through language that could be described as unprofessional. In reading their discussion, I am reminded of the subtle ways in which adolescents tease one another by revealing and exploiting sensitive subjects (like Cerriere's wife working among the types of men he defends or Tharaud's omission of her lucrative paydays from her history of advocating for the working class). This exchange humanizes the attorneys in a way that no school-sponsored Q & A or cocktail hour could. The fact that they become genuinely angry reveals that some truth underlies the criticisms put forth by their adversaries. If even the most experienced lawyers have self-doubt about their work, I don't have to fear becoming a robotic attorney, not emotionally invested in my profession.


In playing “lawyer,” I recently purchased a suit. I could not really tell that it was of a higher quality than my old suit, or any different from it, but I supposedly got a good deal. This was my law school suit—my “lawyer” suit. I wore it to some interviews, and my moot court arguments, and I got some compliments on it, which really just ended up making me feel self-conscious. This may be because I am not a suit person. I'm not a haircut person. Most days of the week, I'm not even a “I should probably shave today” person.

But maybe my suit bothers me because it is a representation of the propriety of the job. I'm not sure if all law students experience the self-suffocation that accompanies playing the part of an industrious law student, but when I read more colorful accounts of lawyer-speak (as opposed to “law-talk”), I feel like a little bit of weight has been lifted off my back. It sure makes my future look a lot brighter to know that if I have a client in a shitty situation, I won't have to act numb to it because I am a “lawyer.”

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r9 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:34 - IanSullivan
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