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Thursday, November 22, 2012

What did I just step in?

So many people have written lovely, eloquent pieces about gratitude this week.  I couldn't hope to outdo them so I won't even try.  (When I want the people in my life to know I love them, I write about amateur tennis, hairballs and pet memorial poems.) 

So, if you had your heart set on a sentimental post, or even on “lovely” or “eloquent,” this one might not be for you. (Heck, this whole blog might not be for you.)  If, on the other hand, your idea of gratitude includes finding humor in unexpected places, perhaps you'll enjoy a detour into the surprisingly fertile turf of contract law.

“Write like a normal person, not a lawyer,” our professors used to tell us as 1Ls.  They wanted us to follow this advice in general but especially when dealing with the unsuspecting non-lawyer population.

Ten years of practice has me convinced that many clients subscribe to the converse –“Talk like a lawyer, not a normal person”—when it comes to interacting with their attorneys.  By the time clients call me, they’ve often researched the issue already.  Armed with a working knowledge of what the law says, they just need a little help understanding how it applies to their situation. 

Clients like this don’t fear legal jargon. They embrace it, wanting to know what a particular term of art means so they can use it correctly themselves.  

A few years ago I fielded a call from a client on the west coast who fit this profile.  A very serious woman, she always did her homework before phoning me.  When she told me she needed advice about a possible deal-breaker in a large contract, I heard genuine concern in her voice.

“Can you take a look at paragraph sixteen?” she asked.  I scanned the document she’d just emailed me and saw that the provision dealt with excusable delays stemming from causes beyond the party’s control. 

Contract lawyers expect to see this.  We know that, every now and then, God goes and does something totally wacky, with no regard whatsoever for breach of contract.  We work around such divine thoughtlessness by building in some time to adjust to it. Nothing unusual there.

“Yep, I see it.” 

“Well, the Acts of God list has fires and floods, but I don’t see earthquakes.  Since we get those out here, shouldn’t we make sure that’s added to ‘force manure’?”

Her slip of the tongue planted the image of a waste tsunami in my brain within seconds.   If ever there were an excuse for non-performance, that would be it.  Years later, I still struggle to talk about Acts of God without cracking up. (My clients have long appreciated the maturity I bring to my job, as you can well imagine.)

Invoicing, once a perfectly safe contractual topic for me, is off limits now, too, thanks to a call I got recently.  This client needed help with a letter he wanted to send to a customer.  He asked me to read it aloud, to make sure it sounded all right. Though I prefer silent reading on the whole, I obliged him.

Everything was going fine until I got to the part where he described the invoicing process, which I knew involved sending bills out after we rendered services rather than in advance.  
“‘As you may know,’” I read, “ ‘the contract requires us to bill in the rears.’” 

I couldn’t go on.  The struggle to suppress my laughter was the only thing that kept me from suggesting he end the sentence with, “so your invoice may come as a real surprise.”

Any time you wander outside of your area of expertise, there’s a chance you’ll step in it.  We’ve all  goofed like this at some point in time.  Still, most people appreciate any attempt you make to speak their language, no matter how clumsy.  As long as you step in horse majeure instead of force manure, you'll be just fine.

P.S. I said I wouldn't write about gratitude but I'd be remiss if I didn't offer my heartfelt thanks for you, my dear readers.  While your taste in blogs raises serious questions about your judgment, I truly appreciate that you find time in your content-laden days to stop by for a read and a laugh.  Your encouragement keeps this project going. (A stack of $100s wouldn't hurt, either, should you feel so inclined.) 


  1. Bill in the rears.


    The best I can come up with is teaching gym during basketball season. "Ian, put your balls away! No, leave Thoma's balls alone, please. Okay everyone, put your balls down. Leave your balls alone, please. No touching the balls."


    1. How in the wiorld did my reply to this fail to appear? (I'm transatlantic so I'll blame it on that.) guess now isn't the time to tell the story about a client who thought my advice had been misconscrewed. Hate it when that happens.