Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Let’s Have Some New Clichés

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2014

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator graphicA new study of the word “cliché” has now been published by the author Orin Hargraves. The title is, It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés (Oxford University Press, 2014). Hargraves gives the dictionary definition of cliché, a “phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.”

As I read Hargraves’ book, I recalled W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale, in which he commented on the way Americans use clichés:

The Americans, who are the most efficient people on the earth, have carried this device [clichés] to such a height of perfection and have invented so wide a range of pithy and hackneyed phrases that they can carry on an amusing and animated conversation without giving a moment’s reflection to what they are saying and so leave their minds free to consider the more important matters of big business and fornication.

I also recalled Frank Sullivan, the humorous writer for The New Yorker in the 1930s and ’40s who created a fictional character, Magnus Arbuthnot, who spoke in nothing but clichés.

Believe it or not, when I was walking along Connecticut Avenue one day, I was greeted by Mr. Arbuthnot who looked rather confused. The two of us decided to sit on a bench in Dupont Circle Park and exchange thoughts. We turned to lawyer talk. I opened with this question:
Q: Mr. Arbuthnot, what can you tell me about the legal profession in these times?
A: With all our faults, we stack up well against those in every other occupation or profession. We are better to work with, or play with, or fight with, or drink with than most other varieties of mankind.

Q: Please continue.
A: We lawyers are always curious, always inquisitive, always picking up odds and ends for our patchwork minds, since there is no knowing when and where they may fit into some corner, and we know life practically. We are world-wise. Bookish men like us are familiar with the equitable maxims. Furthermore, a talented lawyer is the best companion in the world.

Q: Can you give me a few words about clients?
A: Yes. A lawyer spends a considerable part of his life doing distasteful things for disagreeable people who must be satisfied against an impossible time limit and with hourly interruptions from other disagreeable people who want to derail the train; and for his blood, sweat, and tears, he receives in the end the few unkind words to the effect that it might have been done better.

Q: Can you describe your own career in a few clichés?
A: I will confess, I loved the profession with all the ardor and intensity that the jealous mistress could exact. But it was demanding. The lawyer’s only vacation is the space between the question put to a witness and his answer.

Mr. Arbuthnot was in his stride. He brought in one cliché after another: aiding and abetting; cease and desist; custom and usage; due and payable; fraud and deceit; hue and cry; necessary and proper; null and void; ordered, adjudged, and decreed; rest, residue, and remainder; and, of course, Kafkaesque.

It was getting late, so I asked him who was the best lawyer he ever knew. He said it was John W. Davis (1873–1955), who, many years ago, was the lawyer’s lawyer. Davis was born and raised in one of those pick-and-shovel communities in West Virginia (get the cliché?). As a young graduate of the 1895 class of Washington and Lee University School of Law, Davis, in his valedictorian role, gave a stunning speech, with one cliché after another. Here is what he said to the class:

[The] lawyer has been always the sentinel of the watchtower of liberty. In all times and all countries has he stood forth in defense of his nation, her laws and liberties, not, it may be, under a shower of leaden death, but often with the frown of a revengeful and angry tyrant bent upon him.

Mr. Arbuthnot said that when he heard those words, he knew that, in time, Mr. Davis would commence a small law practice in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Thereafter, Davis would impress his friends, who urged him to run for Congress. He did. He won (1911–13). His career was astonishing: U.S. Solicitor General, Ambassador to Great Britain, nominated for president in 1924; lost.

Oddly enough, Mr. Davis took time out to write a poem filled with clichés:

The lawyer’s a man of sorrow, and acquainted with grief;
Among all the sinners, he’s considered the chief.
His friends all admire him when he conquers for them;
When he chances to lose, they’re quick to condemn.
They say, “Ah! He is bought!” if he loses a case;
They say, “Ah! He is crooked!” if he wins in the race.
If he charges big fees, they say he’s a grafter;
If he charges small fees, “He’s not worth going after.”
If he joins the church, “It’s for an effect;”
If he doesn’t join, “He’s as wicked as heck.”
But here is one fact we all must admit:
When we get into trouble, our lawyer is IT. 

After reciting the speech, Mr. Arbuthnot had another appointment. We shook hands. He went up Connecticut Avenue, and I went back to my office.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at [email protected].