Incomprehensibly, American lawyers are furiously debating whether an advocate saying to an unrepresented grandmother to whom he had been opposed that day on behalf of one of her relatives ‘Have a nice day, you piece of shit’ is conduct warranting discipline. For example: here, here, here, and here. To be fair, their conduct rules don’t seem to be as fuzzy as ours, and the debate seems to rage around definitions. But seriously, there’s no nice way to take ‘Have a nice day, you piece of shit’. It’s qualitatively different from saying to an opponent lawyer ‘You’re full of shit’, or even ‘You’re fucked if that’s your best point buddy’, not that I am condoning such language between lawyers.
Still, the comments in America suggest that people should shrug off without much thought being called ‘you piece of shit’ by a supercilious legal representative of your enemy. Perhaps it is what might most charitably be called a ‘cultural difference.’ Cusses are multifaceted objects of fascination, and I cuss as next as the next merchant seaman; what linguistic device could serve as many linguistic ends as ‘fuck’ and its derivatives? I refer you again, to the classic court submission on that subject. But were I to say, in a court, following a case, ‘Have a nice day, you piece of shit’ to anyone, I would be at a very low point indeed. I would be happy to be disciplined, by which time, I feel sure I would have offered a contrite apology. I would feel that I had transgressed an important function of lawyers: to bring zealous yet polite advocacy to the cause of dispute resolution. Steely the pleasantries may be, but I consider them to be important. Strip them away, and the society involved is literally one step closer to the kind of anarchy that anarchists’ utopian visions don’t contemplate.