Vail Daily column: Coming to terms with legal terms
August 12, 2014
After 30 years of practice, I have come to terms with legal terms. I've made my peace with trying to "move" the "court," to prevail upon the "bench" and to "pray" for "relief." As Yogi Berra might have said, "It's only when you think about things that stuff occurs to you."
So, I've been thinking …
What seems perfectly normal to me as a lawyer may seem just a tad, well … strange to those who toil in other endeavors. A few examples might be helpful.
In plain English, a "prayer" may be defined as: a devout petition to God or an object of worship; a spiritual communion with God or an object of worship, as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration or confession; the act or practice of praying to God or an object of worship; a formula or sequence of words used in or appointed for praying.
I held my books upside down and sideways. I tried to reason my way to a logical conclusion. What I learned, though, is that some things, no matter how hard you think about them, you just can’t figure out. You simply have to know. Or you have to know who to ask.
But not at law.
At law, a "prayer" is instead defined as: the request of a complainant, as stated in a complaint or in equity, that the court grant the aid or relief solicited; or the section of the complaint or bill that contains this request.
Yeah, yeah, in both English and at law I suppose there is entreaty to a higher power but … well, draw your own conclusions.
Then there is a "brief."
In plain English, "brief" means short and to the point. Concise. Succinct. Curt. Abrupt. Which at law is everything a "brief" is not. I just placed the maraschino atop a 65-page whopper that would have made the horse whipping scene in "Crime and Punishment" (Part 1, Chapter 5) seem tame by comparison. Only a lawyer could call a 65-page behemoth a "brief."
The legal definition goes like this: a "brief" is a document containing all the facts and points of law pertinent to a specific case, filed by an attorney before arguing the case in court. Note the operative word "all." Lawyers can't resist.
What about a "bench"? A place for a picnic on a lovely autumn day? Oh no.
While in English, a "bench" is a place to park one's weary derriere, a long seat for several persons or a place to stretch out on, at law a "bench" is the office or position of a judge. In essence when you say "the bench" you mean the judges of the court.
Let's try something easier — a "well." I think of the lovely biblical tale of Rachel at the well (Genesis 29), a pastoral place where one comes to slake one's thirst and water one's sheep on an arid day (or, perhaps to find a bride). But, no, no, not at law. At law, the "well" is like the DMZ, a no-man's land, the 38th parallel where no being dares to enter unless with a hall pass from the "bench." At law, the "well" is not where one comes to slay one's thirst. Instead, it is the place between where the lawyer stands and where the judge sits. It is a waterless buffer, a dry creek bed of a moat, a sacred space that one dare not venture without a "pretty please" preceding you.
KNOW WHO TO ASK
It's not exactly a word, but there's a story I've got tell you. It's related — trust me. It's about things you have to master to become efficient as a lawyer.
One of the first things you encounter in law school is all these squiggly things all over the pages of your text books. They are absolutely everywhere. They look like this: §.
Pretty simple, huh? But I didn't know what the little buggers were. I thought and then I thought some more. I cogitated. I pondered. I held my books upside down and sideways. I tried to reason my way to a logical conclusion. What I learned, though, is that some things, no matter how hard you think about them, you just can't figure out. You simply have to know. Or you have to know who to ask.
Mind you this was in the days before the Internet, so you just couldn't look something like that up.
I called my brother, Michael, who was already a lawyer.
"Michael," I started, which I thought was a pretty good place to start. "You know I sort of started law school Monday."
He picked up on the "sort of" immediately and repeated it to me.
"Yeah, well anyway. I picked up my books."
"Your law school books?"
"For the school you sort of started?"
"And I started reading."
"For the classes you sort of attend?"
"Right. Anyway, there are the little squiggly things all over?"
"What do they mean?"
He took a breath and when he exhaled, it whistled over the phone. This was a landline, by the way — mobile phones were about another 10 years off — and time was ticking at about 15 cents a minute.
He said, "Describe them to me."
"Hmmm … " I struggled to describe them, then I came up with, "It's sort of a doohickey on top of another doohickey. Yep. A double doohickey."
"Not very helpful," Michael said.
"It's sort of like a couple of bass clefs facing each another and stacked up on each other." Then I got creative. "A couple of snakes in a love embrace?" Maybe it was the Barry White album in the background; I don't know …
He thought a moment, then he asked, "Do they come before a string of numbers?"
"Bingo," I said. "Yes. Exactly!"
"With hyphens between the numbers?"
I looked over my shoulder to see if he had snuck the hundred miles from Los Angeles into the room. I said, "Indeed."
"It means 'section.' For example, it probably says something like 'Civ Code, squiggly thing, 1542 dash something?"
I thought he was a magician. I said, "Right."
"Civil Code Section 1542," he answered and then he showed off a little, "By the way, Civ Code 'Sec' 1542 deals with waivers."
"Ah. OK." I didn't know a "waiver" from a "hand-shaker."
"Thanks," I said. Then, on an impulse, I asked a final question, "What exactly is a section?"
I don't remember how he answered.
In English, "argument" means "to argue." Same in law.
Some things just make sense.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.