In Praise of Stupid

While there is no class in law school that teaches the etiquette of line-standing, it turns out that it’s one of the premier skills needed of a litigator. Unlike line-standing as learned earlier, which was primarily focused on straightness and, if one could get away with it, jumping ahead of the person in front of you when they weren’t looking, lawyerly line-standing involves both art and finesse.


Waiting on lines in clerks offices or before a judge’s law clerk is where one’s mettle is tested, and it’s fraught with pitfalls. The woman in front of you who steps aside momentarily, allowing the deft to squeeze ahead and edge her out in the queue, may turn out to be your client’s referring lawyer, and none too pleased at your slick move. Awkward.

But more importantly, the line is perhaps the single most utilitarian place to study the intricacies of practice. When the gentleman two ahead of you, adequately attired in houndstooth with a shock of salt and pepper hair, holds up the line arguing to no avail that his papers include the routine incantations that the clerk demands of him, but only slightly amended for some utterly logical reason, pay attention. Pay very close attention.

This is where you learn the most functional lesson of practice upon which your entire career may hinge. The line is where you learn who has the power. And who does not. The line is where you learn how to deal with the powerful, and how to manage to survive the million intricacies that can crush a young lawyer’s spirit.

Notice how the experienced lawyer argues with the clerk? Notice how you stand there, feet immobile as he makes great point after point? Notice how the clerk doesn’t flinch? There’s a reason for all of this, and if it eludes you, then your future as a line-stander is guaranteed. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not nearly as much fun as it looks.

The wise young lawyer watches. Listens. Feels the power ooze from the hub of all law that matters: the clerk whose approval you require to get you off the line. Love the clerk. Respect the clerk. Become one with the clerk.

There are few magic bullets in the law, few true secrets to reveal. This is one. As you shuffle closer to the brilliant light, say these magic words:

“I’m new, and my boss says I’ve got to get this filed or I’ll be sharing a cubicle with a guy from Kazakhstan. I think I’ve done it right, but I really don’t know because I’ve never done this before. I hope it’s right. Do you think it’s okay?”

The clerk’s eyes start to glaze as he drifts into his favorite daydream. Ah, a snot-nosed kid who couldn’t wipe his butt without me. Me, the guy who had to cheat to get a C- in English, and he’s nothing without me, this pathetic worm of a lawyer-child. I will be benevolent. I will teach this grasshopper to fly. I will show him the ways of the omniscient ninja clerk.

After making a few incomprehensible marks on your papers, and informing you to change a neutral pronoun to masculine, he smiles at you and accepts your papers with the admonition that it’s just this one time that he’ll allow your disastrously hideous efforts to pass through his portal to lawyerly success.

You bow. You scrape. You show him the love and deference usually reserved for minor deities, then you get the hell out as quickly as possible, having survived the line. You can use the time you’ve saved from having to redo your papers over a misspelled modifier to get a vente mocha frappuccino, knowing that your feigned stupidity has not only accomplished the impossible, getting papers filed the first time, but gained you a friend for life.

(photo: Shutterstock)

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  • Been there, done that, call me stupid. But it works! Too bad we all benefit from reminders in civility.

  • The first lawyer I worked for made it abundantly clear to me that, contrary to appearances, the clerks were the most important people in the room. The filing clerk decides whether or not you’ll get that motion in on time. The calendar clerk decides whether you will sit in the back of the courtroom all morning, waiting for your case to be called. The law clerk often writes the opinion. The judge may ultimately decide whether you win or lose, but the clerks decide pretty much everything else that happens to you.

  • Andrew Mays

    And learn their names! This is especially true of the clerk you always go to or if you’re in a rural community and there are only a few clerks in the entire office.

  • Bravo!!

    One more consideration: As polite and kind as you must be to clerks in the courthouse is exactly as polite and kind as you must be to support staff where you work and in any other office with which you have contact.

    “The 5 stages of relationships with support staff” was one of the first things that I wrote when I joined the U of MN’s career office. It is as true today as it was then. http://www.passthebaton.biz/2009/09/5-stages-of-relationships-with-support.html

  • When I was a GDLP student, my placement supervisor would let me sit in Court all day when the circuit was in town. One on particular Tuesday, we had an old magistrate with a Clerk that I hadn’t seen before. I sat in on the whole day’s proceedings, and I noticed that she kept shooting me glances. Occasionally she would lean over to the Sheriffs officers and nod in my direction. Eventually, while the magistrate was out of the Court, she asked me if I had any matters that I was waiting for.

    I demurred, of course, and said that I was just watching as a GDLP student. She looked rather impressed, and nothing more was said.

    We had dinner that night with the magistrate, the prosecutors, the court staff, and the solicitors from the area that night. As the evening progressed, more and more wine was drunk. Eventually, the clerk started repeating (about every 5 minutes) something along the following lines:
    “He just sat there, soaking it all in! You could just see him watching, learning. He was like a sponge, soaking it all up!”

    This continued throughout the dinner, becoming more and more verbose and slightly more… ah, slurry.

    The lesson here? I am not sure, but I always get called on first when I have matters before that magistrate, :D

  • that is one on the first things i do when i have a trial am working the tech in. I love up on the clerk. you never know when you need help in the foreseeable emergency or when you need access to the court room during lunch hour to setup some equipment or troubleshoot why that stupid TV is not in the proper Ratio!!