A Lawyer Line I Heard Decades Ago

I wish I remembered the source.


It purports to be an actual incident in a British appellate court, many decades ago. The lawyer was arguing some point of law, on behalf of some poor tenant farmers who were suing someone on a tort theory, and one of the judges asked something on the order of,

Counsel, are your clients familiar with the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur?

Literally a deeply silly question, but not unconventional, given the weird way in which the lawyer and the client are treated together in litigation. The lawyer replied:

In the barren fields in which my clients toil, talk is of little else.

UPDATE: For a 1982 version of this, see here, though I found sources as early as the 1950s with different versions.

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  1. Here's an effort to run down the source, attributing it to the Edwardian barrister Sir Edward Marshall Hall.


    1. Why would he see the need to explain res ipsa loquitur? Doesn't it speak for itself?

      1. ej chenmoHchu

  2. My version: "On the prairies of west Texas whence I sprang, they speak of little else." I've used this for years, but don't recall whom I was imitating on first use.

  3. Latin is a language used only by the Catholic Church since Roman times. Its use promotes religuon. Any Latin should void the legal utterance as a violation of the Establishment Clause.

    It is also lawyer denial to attribute a legal concept to a party. All these are rent seeking lawyer bullshit to generate worthless make work by arcane procedure requirements.

    Any lawyer utterance above the sixth grade reading level violates the requirement to provide notice.

    The lawyer is too stupid, nasty and greedy to understand this comment.

    1. Remeber when black voters in the South were required to name many unkown minor public officials to vote? Is that OK with you scumbag lawyers? How is that different from any lawyer language, in any other legal procedure, you rent seeking, thievin', treasonous, vile, toxic enemies of our country?

    2. [Excerpt from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Rev. Martin L. King (April 16, 1963)]

    3. Actually the use of Latin promotes Roman paganism.

      1. And responding to Daivd promotes reducing the overall IQ in the world, which goes down every time he posts something. As I try to keep reminding myself, but as you see I don't always practice what I preach.

      2. No Sasha -- before it collapsed, the Roman Empire abandoned paganism and adopted Christianity.

        Then during the Dark Ages, local dialects became separate languages, e.g. Italian, French, & Spanish. But prior to Vatican II, the Catholics (but not Protestants) still used Latin in religious services, much as the Jews still use Hebrew. And taught it so as to facilitate this, again, much as the Jews do to this day.

        Our universities of today are heavily influenced by the German (pre-Hitler) universities which themselves were largely influenced by the bureaucracy and traditions of the Catholic church. The best example is graduation gowns -- the simple one for undergraduates, and then the increasingly ornate garb as one moves upward in the academic hireachy. This is even more true in Europe, one of Oxford's is orange and yellow and pink -- reminds me of a tropical bird.

        My guess -- just a guess -- is that the law adopted Latin phrases out of the academic belief that everything sounds more impressive in Latin -- and to the uneducated, it also was a way of showing off the fact that you knew Latin. Look at our diplomas -- many (e.g. Harvard) are still in Latin, a language that many of their graduates do not know.

        1. I think the bigger issue in Latin in Law isn't that knowing Latin is necessary. In fact, knowing Latin can be actively confusing.

          For example:
          "Res Ispa Liquitur" simply means "the thing speaks for itself". That's completely different than the legal principle it implies.

          Similarly, "Habeas Corpus" means "You have the body" in the subjunctive tense, which has dozens of potential meanings absent context. In this case, it's used to imply doubt, "You might have the body". However, this is barely related to what a writ does, demand production of a charge, and it has nothing to do with evidence.

          These Latin phrases serve merely to ensure people know that you are speaking about the Legal terminology and not casual meanings.

          1. Latin's subjunctive form can do double duty as the jussive mood, used to express commands or exhortations, so "habeas" should be translated as "Have" or "You must have". In other languages the jussive is limited to the first and third persons, but not so in Latin.

            1. "subjunctive form"

              "jussive mood"

              Those are English phrases, but they sound like a foreign language to me.

          2. I always thought "Habeas Corpus" meant "produce the body" to the court -- to give the court custody of the prisoner, with the court then having the right to either free him or remand him back to the jailer.

        2. Very good summary, just missing the resurgence of Roman law during the Renaissance, and the use of Latin as a common European tongue for diplomacy until displaced by French. The Magna Carta, for example, was in Latin.

          1. That was precisely my thought as well. I think we moderns of the West overlook the extent to which our contemporary legal systems are derived from Roman law, or at least the Medieval interpretation of Roman law. It was perfectly natural for legal scholars and lawyers of the Middle Ages to use Latin to express legal concepts, not just because they knew Latin and it was the lingua franca of the educated class, but because they were consciously incorporating Roman precedents into their own legal analysis and lawmaking, even if the process was subject to misinterpretation of what the Roman law actually was in practice.

            And to the original commenter's point, legal writing is often unnecessarily opaque, but I don't think it's due to the use of Latin. Latin comprises a very small part of most legal writing, if it appears at all.

            1. Opaque legal language was taught by the French for rent seeking. The Medieval lawyer felt shame if he allowed his case to reach substance. They were 10 times more procedural than today, and slicker than John Roberts.

      3. Sasha. Henry of Bratton was a monk. He attended classes by St. Thomas. He wrote the Notebook. He was the judge for Edward I, Longshanks in Braveheart. You are still practicing his law. The reason for Latin is that Henry plagiarized the Catechism. The court looks like a church. The judge dresses like a priest. You stand. You sit. The best briefs ever written were those of St. Thomas. The adversarial system is the disputation method of Scholasticism. Sovereign immunity is justified bt the King's speaking with the voice of God. The Inquisition is how the Vatican got rich through plea deals and forfeitures.

        The Church is slow. It gave up on Scholasticism in the 19th Century. Only American law subsctibes to it.

        Cool in the 13th Century. Not acceptable today. It is the cause of the failure of every self stated goal of every law subject. Imagine any field with the practices of the 13th Century. They wiuld be arrested as a threat to public safety. The rule of law is an essential utility product. This cannot go on.

        1. He wrote the Notebook

          No; that was Nicholas Sparks.

    4. The post was meant to be amusing and your response quite animated...

      What fun you must be at parties.


      1. That's a gender-fluid locations, so we can't identify it without using nouns that are not acceptable in today's society

      2. That is how the lawyer implants false memories to generate case and to plunder the assets of productive males. You don't know much. Nothing is stupider than the lawyer.

  4. Help me out. I don’t think this is a “deeply silly” question. Nor do I see how it confuses lawyer and client.

    The judge is not asking if the clients know the Latin phrase. He’s asking if they know about the doctrine. And the doctrine is pretty commonsense.

    1. I think that a certain amount of law is common sense, but if you don't work in the field and don't spend a lot of time thinking about it, you may not realize it's an actual rule. The doctrine of assumption of risk is also intuitive, and what most people would expect the law to be, but most lay people would never have had a reason to actually think through that it's a legal doctrine.

      Which reminds me of one of my own favorite lawyer jokes. An attorney was making his first appearance at the court of appeals, and was making the same simple, obvious, no-brainer point over and over. Finally one of the judges said to him, "Counsel, please give us credit for having some common sense up here." To which the lawyer responded, "Judge, that was the mistake I made in the trial court."

      1. I would instead have quoted Albert Einstein's answer to how someone should explain something: "presume absolute intelligence and absolute ignorance."

        1. You'd have quoted something you made up?

      2. A lot of tort law and contract law is an exercise in trying to give expression and an analytical framework to common sense or things that seem obvious once you think about them.

    2. Why not say, everyone knows that? The reason is to force people to hire a lawyer, rent seeking.

      1. Because being vaguely aware of something that's intuitive is not the same thing as being able to apply it to the facts of the case in a coherent fashion. And also, there are times when the law is counter-intuitive, so what "everyone knows" may be wrong in a given case.

      2. Well, David, IANAL, and you are wrong. The primary purpose of assistance during any legal hearing is to have calm impassionate counsel, someone to keep you on track and focused, and to keep you from making a fool of yourself. It doesn't matter how simple or complicated or biased the legal system is, or how many dusty volumes of precedent there are to research; those are secondary concerns.

    3. Captcrisis, at the risk of sounding like DaivdBehar, isn't a lawyer supposed to be advocating for his client and not himself? Isn't he supposed to be making the arguments THAT HIS CLIENT wants made?

      This may not happen in reality, and notwithstanding the 8th Amendment and my cultural values, there are lawyers whom I'd like to see drawn & quartered -- and they purportedly were the ones on *my* side -- but I'm talking principle here. Isn't the principle that the lawyer is advocating for his client and not himself?

      1. In other words, why should there be any distinction between lawyer and client?

    4. "He’s asking if they know about the doctrine."

      Why would that matter?

      If the answer is No, what impact on the case does it have? Same with Yes.

    5. Is it your experience that a lot of non-lawyers know about the doctrine? Because it isn't mine.

  5. Rumpole and the Younger Generation, 1978:

    To which Mr Justice Everglade trotted out his favourite bit of Latin. “I imagine,’ he said loftily, ‘your client says he was not
    ejusdem generis with the other lads.’
    ‘Ejusdem generis? Oh yes, my Lord. He’s always saying that. Ejusdem generis is a phrase in constant use in his
    particular part of Brixton.’

    1. I thought of that, too.

    2. One of my favorite MASH scenes is when Klinger is being court marshaled for buying back Hawkeye's stolen Polaroid camera and Winchester is attempting to defend him.

      Winchester attempts to stump the prosecutor with a Latin phrase that the prosecutor has never heard of -- but the judge (a MD) has -- a medical term something like "take twice daily by mouth with meals."

      Everything sounds more impressive in Latin.

  6. Dang, we're really overanalyzing this.

    It was a funny response.


    1. "...we're really overanalyzing this."

      Isn't that what lawyers do? Should we be surprised?

  7. Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos fantasy series has used this construction repeatedly over the years.

    "I assume you are familiar with [obscure magical theory or imperial political issue]?"
    "I assure you, in the small fishing village where I come from, we speak of little else."

    Those books have been coming out since the early 80s, but I believe the first time he used this would have been a later volume in the 90s.

  8. If a lawyer had given such a response to a judge asking the question, would not the lawyer be lying? Is that a false representation. Or, does it not count if the representation is so outlandish (or cute) that no reasonable judge would have understood it to be a representation of fact? This is like the Powell defense that has gathered attention in the past few days.

    So, is a misrepresentation to a court other than a misrepresentation because the lawyer did not think that a reasonable judge would believe it? I don't think I would have had the brass to try that.

  9. The 1982 NC footnote 2 has much wrong with it. Northern Ireland is not on Great Britain (a geographic, not a political term) - England, Wales & Scotland are. I believe there is not now nor has there ever been a court with jurisdiction of Great Britain. The current highest court is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Below it are the highest courts in; (1) England and Wales; (2) Scotland and (3) Northern Ireland. Believe the Law Lords had similar scope, or before Irish independence encompassed all of Ireland.

  10. Paul Mankin and the M & F Law staff have been a Godsend to me. He helped me to get the harassing debt collection calls to stop and was able to procure me a nice compensation. Mr. Mankin and his team treated me respectfully, never judging or condemning me for my situation. During my free consultation with Mr. Mankin he made me feel as though there was nothing more important at that moment than helping me with my problem.

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