Robbins: Why lawyers curse |

Robbins: Why lawyers curse

Why do lawyers curse?

Well, darned if I know.

OK, that was flip of me.

Maybe it’s the stress. Or else pure hubris. Maybe, it is something else.

What I do know for certain is that if a Janus mask had three sides, law would sometimes be like that.

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In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions. He is usually depicted as having two faces since he looks to the future and to the past. The Romans named the first month of January (Januarius), which straddles past and prologue, in his honor. But most of us are more familiar with the Janus mask of theater — you know, the smiling muse of comedy (Thalia) and frowning muse of tragedy (Melpomene)? 

Although first meant to honor the ancient Athenian god, Dionysus, the theater masks have been associated with other deities over the centuries, most importantly for our purposes here, Janus, the god of looking-forward-looking-back.

Anyway, so back to law …

Instead of two faces, the law has three.

Sure, sure, there’s the looking-forward-looking-back aspect to law. To know where you’re going you need to look back to examine where you’ve been. The first thing any good attorney does is take a detailed “history” of the case of the “what brought us to this point” variety and, quiver filled with the whens, whys, whos and hows of the dispute, the lawyer then plots a course for moving forward to resolve the conflict. There is also precedent to consider. What have the courts done before?

But that still doesn’t explain why lawyers curse.

Back then to our Janus mask, let’s now add a third face. But now, instead of looking forward or looking back, let’s call the faces, for lack of more poetic names, the Client Face, the Courtroom Face, and Opposing Counsel Face.

Before we dig through this further, though, I just want to note that cursing, you may have observed, is not the exclusive domain of lawyers. Maybe, just maybe — clergy of course excepted — there is a wee bit of salty language expressed in almost all professions. It seems to me though, with the possible exception of the military and professional sports, that the law is overrepresented in the expletives per capita department.

The Client Face is, understandably, the one worn with the client. It is usually a face of courtesy and commiseration. Maybe once the lawyer and his client know one another better, they can spit and curse and let their hair down together, but the default position is to keep the cursing to a minimum. You hired him/her to be professional, didn’t you?

The Court Face is the one worn before the Court. It is one of solemnity and decorum. Here, I have rarely, if ever witnessed cursing. The court is owed respect. Simple as that. One does not curse in court. Besides being in bad form, it is disrespectful and in woefully bad taste. Plus, it will get you exactly nowhere good. And, the court does not deserve it. Like ’em or not, judges are overworked and faithful servants of the law. Instead of disrespect, we owe them thanks — sincerely so.

So, in the main, it is when the third face is worn — the Opposing Counsel Face — where cursing stirs up at times to a tempest. Bear in mind though, it is rare indeed in my experience for opposing counsel to curse “at” one another. No, no; it is not the hurling of the slings and arrows of foul imprecations at one another where the cursing happens. Instead, it is “expressive” cursing. Cursing as a form of bonding I suppose. The cursing is more of the suffering of mutual injustices variety, the sharing of expressive tales of how the world generally, and the profession of law specifically, has one stressed to the bursting point where letting off a little steam prevents a blowout.

So lawyers curse to bond?

Yup. Precisely.

And to embellish war stories to heroic proportions. Isn’t a yarn just a bit more of one if a tad of pigment is added to the oil base?

Lawyers — natural storytellers and persuaders — curse to entertain, to make the story grander, to impress, to shock. Rarely have I heard a fellow lawyer curse in what amounts to real, full-throated anger. Hey, I’m not denying that it happens now and then, but mostly not.

A lawyer’s scalpel and his sutures are his wit and his tongue. And so a lawyer takes to lashing the latter now and then, like taking a house dog out for a trot to make sure it is exercised and supple.

Why do lawyers curse? 

Geez, I don’t know. At the end of the day, it’s a goldarn, freakin’ mystery.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices Of Counsel in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Caplan & Earnest, LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, and divorce, and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address at His novels, “How to Raise a Shark (an apocryphal tale),” “The Stone Minder’s Daughter,” and “Why I Walk so Slow” are currently available at fine booksellers.

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