Odd Lawyer Phrases

When arguing an appeal, we invariably begin with the phrase, “May it please the court…”  Why?  What if it doesn’t please the court?  Are we supposed to limit our arguments to only those that make the judges on the panel happy?

Sure, we want the judges to accept and adopt our positions.  But please them?  Not necessarily.  Indeed, criminal defense lawyers are far more likely to piss them off than anything else, and we know that in advance because we are the appellants and are making them work.  If we wanted to please them, we’d withdraw all notices of appeal and let them play golf.  We wouldn’t win, of course, but they’d be happy.

We repeat the out of tradition and custom, though I know a few lawyers who refuse to say it as a matter of principle.   On the other hand, they don’t open their argument with “Whether you like it or not…”  You still get more flies with honey than vinegar, though the fly metaphor can be stretched a bit thin when it comes to appellate judges.

There are some other lawyer phrases, like “oyez” at the opening of the session, which have always bothered me, though not enough to take issue.  Of course, when they say “let all draw near and be heard,” I’m always tempted to stand up and announce that I’ve got a little something to say, and since they asked…

Of course, those old saws, “with all due respect” and “my learned adversary” are intended to serve as nice ways of insulting the judge and opposing counsel, respectively.  Then Andrew Lavoott Bluestone of New York Attorney Malpractice Blog loves to tell of when a judge asked him whether he was being contemptuous of the court, to which he replied, “Not at this time, Your Honor.”

And what’s with “Your Honor?”  Do judges not have names?  While we are expected to be respectful, do we really have to be obsequious?  You would have thought the whole “Your Honor” thing would have gone out with wigs.

During a trial, I crossed a cop using the word “skel”.  I like using some of the uglier cop phraseology, as it reminds the jury who that nicely dressed, well-mannered, cooperative fellow on the stand really is.  So after uttering the word, the court reporter looks up at me and says, “Huh”?  Without missing a beat, I said, “Skel; from the Latin, skel, skellum, skellous.”  The court reporter sighed, and “my learned adversary” furrowed her brow, but I got a chuckle out of “His Honor.” 

4 thoughts on “Odd Lawyer Phrases

  1. Gideon

    I always thought “May it please the court” had more to do with asking them if you could start. As in “if it pleases your honors I’d like to start” or “I’m starting, please”.

  2. SHG

    That would make sense, but for the fact that you stand there while they fiddle with their papers, until the presiding judge says “proceed”.  Then comes the “may it please the court” line.  Having already been told to proceed, the horse it out of the barn as to asking permission to move forward.


  3. Mark Bennett

    My favorite (possibly apocryphal) exchange is this:

    Judge: You are showing contempt for this court!
    Lawyer: I apologize, your honor. I’m trying to conceal it.

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