What Does This Legal S**T Mean?

A hoary old joke among lawyers is that “the practice of law would be great, if it weren’t for the clients.”

I, too, used to feel impatient with  people who didn’t understand what I told them regarding their legal situations. It infuriated me that the more information I gave clients, striving to be as precise as possible, the more they tuned me out.

A retired, recovering attorney, nowadays I feel infuriated FOR clients. Once the extraordinary pressure I had been under no longer bent me so far out of shape, I slowly began to realize that it was I who should have been responsible for translating lawyerese into layman; it was I who was usually at fault when communication failed.

Early on in my efforts to write spec fic, I even wrote a semi-comic short story about it. It was the first in my “Heirs” universe, and my first story accepted for publication before the magazine publishing it changed management and dropped its prior plans. Now I think I’ll tighten “Heir Cut” a bit and make it available here.

But I decided to do something more practical, too. I decided to create this page to help laymen understand what their lawyers mean when they talk at them.

This page is meant to help out clients with questions about CIVIL law. Send me your questions and I’ll take a stab at interpreting, one reader question per week. NOTE: By “civil law,” I mean everything OTHER THAN criminal law. I’ve never practiced criminal law.

I won’t give you “legal advice,” a most holy and regulated monopoly in each State. I will act as your translator, helping you understand the likely meaning of the “legal advice” you received from someone else.

Why do I say, “likely meaning”? Read what follows only if you value understanding the theory behind practice.

In law school, you spend three years learning to “think like a lawyer.” Not only your vocabulary, but your world view shifts. You make different assumptions, and notice different phenomena in the social and physical universe. For example,  like the fable that says the Inuit recognize twenty distinct kinds of snow,  lawyers recognizes twenty distinct kinds of responsibility.

When lawyers write laws and apply them to phenomena (and remember, judges are overwhelmingly lawyers first), they follow special rules taught in law school. These rules construe the laws and sort the details of the phenomena into special categories used to assign social responsibility for each phenomenon that aggrieves a person whom the legal system allows to complain. (BTW, persons who have the right to complain to a court about a particular grievance are said to have “standing.”)

The written laws, rules of construction, and phenomena to which lawyers apply them are not anything as well-defined as scientific “laws” or even scientific theories.  What lawyers deal with is more like a series of rubber-bands: they can be stretched in various directions and overlaid on top of each other in various configurations.

Contemporaneous politics (personal, local, and national) has a lot to do with how far and in what directions  lawyers can “reasonably” stretch these rubber-bands. This is why reasonable lawyers can differ and why judges’ rulings are called “opinions.”

In most cases, the best any lawyer can do is provide an educated prediction.

Which I’ll do. If I receive more than one question per week, I’ll answer the ones most likely to affect the most clients, first.