by Justice William W. Bedsworth
The skill set required of a modern lawyer is daunting. When I started practicing, back in the Pleistocene, you needed to be able to speak an intelligible sentence, write an intelligible sentence, and know enough law to distinguish yourself from a second baseman.
Now you’re liable to need an undergraduate degree in a specialized discipline, language skills that enable you to take a depo in Spanish or Farsi or Xhosa, a knowledge of electronics advanced enough to enable you to operate a smartphone, scan documents, and make airline reservations, and a familiarity with computers that only Steve Jobs had twenty years ago. A job applicant who showed up with the qualifications I had when I arrived in this county in 1971 would not get an interview today.1
One of the great injustices of life is that you have to keep running harder to stay up with the younger dogs in the pack at a time when your ability to run harder is diminishing rather than expanding.
Fortunately, the aging process comes with a few advantages. You’ve learned networking and developed helpful friendships. You’ve learned economies of scale and developed a modicum of perspective.
You’ve stepped on enough landmines to develop a map that shows you where they are. And scars that remind you to look at the map. You’ve learned to keep your mouth shut . . . occasionally.2
You’ve learned to recognize the value of your tools. You’ve learned the statutes and reporters are the sine qua non of your reading requirements, but there are others of value. High on my list of these others is the local legal newspaper.
I actually read three of them—with varying degrees of scrutiny—and I’ve about driven my youngest child around the bend3 trying to communicate to her how important I think they are.
They help me keep up with what’s going on in my legal community—not just the daily appellate news, which is vital to me—but also what my friends are doing. And what people who aren’t my friends are doing. They keep me apprised of thinking in legal academia so I don’t sound like such a dummy to my externs.4
They provide news about the business of law. Having spent my entire career in the public sector, watching the private sector is like a good science fiction movie for me.
Every day I read about how Pillsbury, Madison & Gazorninplat absorbed the nine lawyers in the Smith, Wesson & Snickerdoodle firm to expand their office into a practice area that does something I know about only because I typed it into Google to show off to the externs last week. I read about the corporate merger engineered by a lawyer whose bar number has seven digits but managed to combine the Banana Republic Common Carriers division with V-TecMagna Transpositors, thus making them the third-largest undiversified corporate ramifactor in the southern Pacific Rim. Amazing stuff.
But of course my favorite part is the Judicial Profile. You know the Profile. A nice photo of a smiling judge accompanied by a laudatory article written in a cipher unmatched since the Navajo code-talkers of World War II.
What? You didn’t know they were written in code? These are the most educational articles in the paper, not because of the thirty-column-inch piece about the judge—which invariably contains several useful nuggets of information and is itself an extremely valuable resource—but because of what they teach about the use of euphemism.
Euphemism is another tool you develop through years of practice. Our profession excels at euphemism. With the possible exception of dentists,5 no one engages in “near-speak” as much as we do. And, in the words of the great legal philosopher Carole Bayer Sager, “Nobody Does it Better.”6
You don’t believe me? You don’t realize how completely lawyers have mastered this art? Pick up the local legal any morning and read that day’s profile of one of the state’s judges. Each one contains three or four quotes from the local bar about the judge in question, most of which I find simply hilarious.
In virtually every instance, some poor practitioner has been cornered in his office or on her car phone and asked to comment on the merits of dear old Judge Shlabotnick. Why these people don’t just take the Fifth I do not know, but I’m sure glad they don’t because their attempts to stay on the good side of the judge7 without losing all credibility amongst their fellow attorneys are worth the price of admission.
For the benefit of those of you younger dogs still developing your euphemism chops, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite judicial descriptions and what they really mean. I hope they’ll make the profiles more instructive for you:
“He has good judgment.” He agrees with me.
“He’s erratic.” He doesn’t ALWAYS agree with me.
“He’s fair.” Not to be confused with “good” or “excellent.”
“She can make a decision.” CORRECT decisions are beyond her, but decisions she can handle.”
“Very receptive to new ideas.” Crazy as a loon. I sold this guy a cockamamie argument I wouldn’t have tried to run by my tailor. What a dingbat.
“Well-organized.” An anal-retentive pain in the . . . neck.
“She can be tough.” Cantankerous old viper. Toughest decision she ever has to make is whom to bite next.
“He expects you to be prepared.” Mainly because HE isn’t. This clown couldn’t find his own chambers without a map and a guide. If you aren’t prepared to take him by the hand and lead him from Point A to Point B, he won’t get there.
“She’s not a rubber stamp.” Hasn’t agreed with a government lawyer since the Eisenhower administration. If your opponent is a state, county, school board, or local PTA, this anti-authoritarian curmudgeon is perfect for you.
“She’s flexible.” Spineless jellyfish hasn’t made a tough call in ten years on the bench. She’ll spend a day and a half trying to settle your case if it looks like she might otherwise have to rule on the admissibility of something.
“She’s not an activist judge.” Activist!? We can’t even keep her awake! She’s about as active as a lunar volcano.
“He’s not afraid to admit he doesn’t know something.” Probably because he gets so much practice. You’ve heard of people who don’t know anything? This guy doesn’t even SUSPECT anything.
“He knows the law.” Unfortunately, “the law” he knows is the law of averages. This guy is flipping a coin up there. Totally clueless.
“A little formal.” A little?! You need to leave the courtroom to cough. You know how Lance Ito went ballistic over cellphones in the courtroom? This guy makes you take off your watch. He misunderstood when the governor called and thought he’d been “anointed.” We’re lucky he doesn’t make us genuflect when we pass in front of him.
“Innovative.” Where does he get these ideas?! I think he must have gotten some bad acid in the sixties. He makes rulings that would embarrass Jimi Hendrix.
“Compassionate.” Won’t be invited to the D.A.’s Christmas Party.
“She has a good sense of humor.” She can’t be serious about these rulings.
“Just needs a little experience.” In twenty years, he’ll STILL be terrible.
“Very experienced.” He’s been making the same mistakes for twenty years.
“Values punctuality.” If he could read law as well as he tells time, we’d all be better off.
“An independent thinker.” Talk about a loose cannon! This guy must be reading the Napoleonic Code in chambers. We never know WHAT he’s liable to do.
“She’s very careful.” Careful? She’s paralyzed is what she is. I’ve never seen anybody so slow. It takes her an hour-and-a-half to watch “60 Minutes.” Give us a break, lady, make a decision. While we’re young!
“A ‘big picture’ guy.” Thinks he’s William O. Douglas. Doesn’t even try to read the law anymore. Just decides who the good guy is and rules accordingly.
“A great settlement judge.” I wouldn’t TRY a case in front of this simpleton if my client was God and I had twelve nuns for a jury.
“A great trial judge.” I guess if all we let him do is sit up there and yell “safe” or “out” every now and again, he can’t screw things up too badly. But God help us if they ever give him a calendar.
“Likes you to know who’s in charge.” Certainly SOMEBODY in the courtroom ought to know.
“A gentleman.” I can’t think of a single thing this guy has ever done right, but he’s such a nice guy, and the rest of them are such churlish louts that I just can’t bring myself to say anything bad about him.
“A joy to appear before.” The gender-neutral equivalent of “a gentleman.”
“A judge’s judge.” NOBODY knows what this one means, but it has a nice ring to it, so it gets said a lot.
“Would make a great appellate court jurist.” Please, somebody, get him out of my courtroom. Put him someplace where I’ll be able to read his goofy rulings ahead of time and prepare for them instead of getting blind-sided every week.
“A sui generis nut case.” Bedsworth.
So there’s your primer on euphemism. Better Living Through Sophistry. MCLE credit pending.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. A Criminal Waste of Space won Best Column in California in 2018 from the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA). And look for his latest book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing. He can be contacted at email@example.com.