What’s Your Favorite Legal Quotation?

Posted on Categories Legal Practice

It’s time for another in our semi-regular series of questions posed to Marquette Law faculty: What’s your favorite legal quotation? I’ll go first. There are a number of quotations that I could choose from, from cases (“The common law is not a brooding omnipresence in the sky”), apocryphal anecdotes (“Your honor, ten dollars wouldn’t pay for half the contempt I have for this court!”), or law review articles (“There are two things wrong with almost all legal writing. One is its style. The other is its content.”).

But my favorite, the one I quote more often than any other to students, clients, and anyone else who will listen, is not attributable so far as I know to any particular source. I heard it first from a partner I worked for, but I have since run across it in multiple other venues. It’s about litigation in court, and it goes something like this:

The most rock-solid, knock-down, absolutely sure-fire legal argument you can imagine has about an 85% chance of success.

I like this quotation because it pithily illustrates the dangers of over-confidence in litigation. There are at least two ways an assessment of one’s chances of success can go wrong. First, an assessment of the strength of a legal argument tends to overlook the vagaries of the litigation process. The judge could be inept; or hide-bound to an idiosyncratic view of the law that drives him or her to the opposite result, despite the strength of your position; or simply make a mistake. The jury could misapply the law to the facts, despite optimal presentation on your part. The law is often hard to determine, but what this quotation is getting at is that there is more to predicting the outcome of a suit than just the law.

But there’s another source of error in determining one’s chances of success. As part of the process of psychologically steeling oneself to make forceful legal arguments will persuade others, lawyers tend to become overly enamored of those arguments, and delude themselves into thinking that their arguments really are “the most rock-solid, knock-down, absolutely sure-fire legal arguments” that can be imagined. This is why it is critical, as an attorney, to force yourself to imagine the strongest counter-arguments possible to your position; to mentally put yourself in the role of a critic, at least temporarily, and do your best to destroy the elaborate structure you just built. That is difficult to do well, however, and so it’s another source of the 15% failure rate.

3 thoughts on “What’s Your Favorite Legal Quotation?”

  1. “The human mind is admittedly fallible, and in most professions the possibility of occasional error is admitted and even guarded against. But the legal profession is the only one in which the chances of error are admitted to be so high that an elaborate machinery has been provided for the correction of error–and not a single error, but a succession of errors. In other trades to be wrong is regarded as a matter of regret; in the law alone is it regarded as a matter of course … .”
    –A. P. Herbert, “Why is the House of Lords? sub nominee Inland Revenue v. Haddock”, quoting the Master of the Rolls

  2. My favorite legal quotation is:

    “I sometimes wish that people would put a little more emphasis upon the observance of the law than they do upon its enforcement.” – Calvin Coolidge

  3. Coolidge also was quoted in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1921 as saying the following:

    There are racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside for any sentimental reasons. Biological laws tell us that certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides. Quality of mind and body suggests that observance of ethnic law is as great a necessity to a nation as immigration law.

    “Silent Cal” may not have been such a bad idea.

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