Revealing the rational behind “lawyer speak”

Questions: Is there an interest in reading a column about various law-related topics written from the perspective of a small-town lawyer?

        Answer: Stay tuned.

        What is it like to be a small-town lawyer working in Jackson Hole? Thank you for asking. For one thing, being a lawyer in this small town is different now than it was 26 years ago when I first became a small-town lawyer. In 1973, there were only 10 of me. Since then, I have multiplied, like a malignant cell, and now there are 115 of me.

When I set up shop in 1973, Judge C. Stuart Brown, the District Court Judge at that time, “rode the circuit” to Jackson. Judge Brown lived in Kemmerer, 170 miles south of here, and he traveled from town to town to hold court. In the real old days, judges used to travel on horseback from one court to another, thus the phrase “riding the circuit.” Judge Brown generally came to Jackson once a month, mostly to tell jokes. Usually, though, we conducted some business before he left, whether we needed to or not.

In the 1990’s, District Court Judge Terry Rogers continues the tradition. He is the judge in almost all cases filed in District Court in Jackson. Judge Rogers spends most of his time in Jackson, but also rides the circuit to hold court in Pinedale and Lander each month, and other cool places like Kemmerer, Baggs, Wamsutter and Meteetse. The names alone probably make you want to ride shotgun with him.

An important part of the lawyer business involves effective communication through the spoken and written word. I have this image of myself as one who writes in a simple, straightforward manner. This opinion is apparently not shared by everyone else.

That point was cruelly driven home recently. I was on a trip with my kids during Thanksgiving vacation, and I brought some work along with me. Feeling inspired by the exquisitely beautiful view from our balcony, I was writing a document in my very best, most simple, most straightforward manner for which I am famous the world over.

After I finished writing, I dictated this brilliant product into my tape recorder. As I was dictating, I noticed my 15-year-old son staring  at me intently. Actually, since it was just before noon, I figured he was still asleep, only with his eyes open.

After a while though, my son said, “What in the world are you talking about? I don’t understand one thing you just said. Why can’t you just say what you mean?”

I was crushed. I started to explain to him that if only he… Then I noticed his eyes were glazing over, so I decided to be kind to both of us and shut up.

But it got me thinking. People always make fun of the way we lawyers use the written word. Want to know why lawyers write the way we do? It’s because we’re lousy writers. But we come by it honestly.

The explanation goes something like this:

In law school, we spend 90 percent of our time reading law books filled with cases written by supreme court judges. A supreme court judge is someone who, as likely as not, had a normal childhood, but who, since becoming a judge, has virtually stopped living life as we know it.

A supreme court judge, by definition, is someone who gets paid a lot of government money to write things that make absolutely no sense to any normal human being.

It is almost as though these judges have a penalty system in place: Write a sentence which someone can actually understand, and bingo, pay a $50 fine. What else can explain the fact that there is not one lick of sense in anything these judges say? More on that later. For now, it’s  back to law school.

I went to law school many, many years ago, and we had some smart kids in those days. So the judges had to be especially careful to make sure that not even the brightest student knew what they were talking about in those cases they were writing. So what did the judges do? They devised a system where in every other sentence they stuck in a Latin phrase, either a long one like “Qui facit per alium, facit per se,” or short ones like “modus operandi” or “corpus delicti,” which seemed to pop up just at the moment you thought you were getting the point.

They did this stuff just to fool the really smart kids. Can you imagine what it did to the average student like me? Not only were the English sentences written in Greek, but the Latin ones were in Greek too!

Is it any wonder then, that no one understands what lawyers say?

But the system does have an element of good sense to it. When a lawyer writes something, a remarkable chain of events known as “shyster’s law” gets set into motion: Two very sensible non-lawyers almost immediately begin to argue about what the lawyer wrote, so they call in two lawyers to help them make absolutely certain that the argument heats up, then somebody gets the brilliant idea to ask the judge to explain what the lawyers meant, and that’s when things really begin cooking. Shyster’s Law. Works every time!


          In order to convince the editors of this newspaper to publish this column, I had to swear to them that I would write seriously (sort of) on at least one law-related topic in each article. Anybody got an idea? If you do, please write, telephone, fax, e-mail, telepathically or otherwise contact the editor (or my office) with your suggestion or request.

This time around, I get to pick the topic. I thought it might be appropriate to start with a subject entitled: “Suggestions on choosing your very own personal small-town lawyer.”

I strongly recommend spending more time selecting your next spouse than choosing your next lawyer, but not too much more. The process of choosing legal counsel does involve some good fortune, but you can greatly minimize the risks by doing your homework.

The most reliable source of information typically will come from a friend, co-worker, neighbor, mother-in-law (be careful here) or someone else you know and trust who has been directly involved in the lawyering process and can speak to you about his or her personal experience with a lawyer.

I emphasize direct, personal involvement. We human beings thrive on gossip, and although you can hardly grow a blessed thing in the frigid climate of Jackson Hole, I have found that it is the absolutely perfect breeding-ground for rumors.

Let me try to put this in perspective. Most of the rumors you have heard about a particular lawyer are probably only slightly more accurate than the rumors you’ve heard about yourself. So a good rule of thumb is: first-hand information yes, rumor no.

If you are fortunate enough to have a personal recommendation from someone you trust, then what? It is perfectly appropriate to call the lawyer first and discuss your matter briefly over the telephone.

It is almost always best to meet the lawyer in person. The lawyer-client relationship is typically very personal, and frequently quite intense. It is best to get as good a feel for your lawyer as quickly as you can.

The initial conference is the place to do this. Interview the lawyer the best you can, ask about his or her experience with the type of issue you are discussing, and what you may reasonably expect along the hopefully not-too-bumpy road to your ultimate goal.

Talk about the timetable for the project. Talk about what the lawyer will expect of you, and what you should expect from your lawyer. Talk about the cost of the project.

Although we lawyers are not always the best at making sure it gets done, it is a terrific idea to have your arrangement with your lawyer reduced to writing. You would be amazed at how much potential there is for misunderstanding.

Remember, you are entering that vast new arena, the twilight zone known as The Land of the Lawyer. So, at the end of the meeting, as you are smiling and shaking hands with your now very own personal small-town lawyer, if he or she has not already promised to write a letter outlining your arrangement, then very tactfully mention that you’re a faithful follower of the Jackson Hole Guide and all its preaching and, oh by the way, when can you expect the letter outlining your arrangement?

We’re out of time for now. Don’t forget to send those cards and letters regarding law-related issues you would like to know more about.

See you next time.