The New Lingua Franca

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My mother always wanted me to be a lawyer, like her two older brothers. Whenever we had dinner with one of my maternal uncles, I was nudged to ask them about their pending cases, as if my nine-year-old mind could unravel the intricacies of electric-utility litigation. Sometime during this 1950s childhood, I was given an obscure board game called Verdict which rewarded players (there were always just two-myself and my younger sister) who cited the proper legal grounds for objecting to evidence in an imaginary case. Verdict was less a play toy than a cram course for the bar exam, with dice thrown in as a study aid. Small wonder that, at an age when other kids were still struggling over the 48 state capitals, I was already fluent in legalese, accustomed to shouting out multisyllabic words like "circumstantial," "hearsay evidence," and, my favorite, "irrelevant."

My precocious legal erudition was utimately to prove irrelevant as a career guide, but at the time, such mastery of courtroom phraseology was a rare parlor trick. Back in that Perry Mason era, most adults probably assumed from TV that all trials ended with a surprise confession by a guilt-ridden spectator in the back row of the courtroom. Devoted readers of murder mysteries may have picked up a few other legal nuggets about double jeopardy and the right of a wife to refuse to testify against her husband. But for most law-abiding citizens, first-hand exposure to the judicial system was limited to slipping $2 in an envelope to pay a parking ticket.

What legal greenhorns Americans were back then. Trial buffs in the 1950s were mostly bored retirees who preferred the courtroom to playing pinochle or hanging out at the public library. How did we ever survive as a culture without Judge Judy, Court TV, and Johnnie Cochran? Next New Year's Eve, when the ball slithers down to usher in a new millennium, I almost expect to see CNN's Greta Van Susteren providing commentary on the legal strategies behind the singing of "Auld Lang Syne." Last time I checked the Nielsens, three of the top 15 TV series (JAG, Law and Order and Ally McBeal) had legal themes.

These days, every American-regardless of age, race, income or gender-shares the same avocation: serving as a national juror in this year's "trial of the century."

At the height of the O.J. hysteria, my profound boredom with all smoking-glove legal theories made me a social pariah. How I dreaded those dinners with friends that invariably began with 45 minutes of Geraldo-style legal analysis. The night after O.J. was acquitted, I was virtually denounced as un-American for my dearth of outraged passion over the verdict. But no matter where I turn these days, I can't escape the long arm of the law. As a political columnist, I was trapped covering a Senate impeachment trial that dragged on at the pace of Freudian analysis. One wintry afternoon, weary of abstruse legal arguments over the definition of perjury, I slipped off to the cineplex to see the latest John Travolta movie, which I vaguely remembered had received good reviews. Talk about a busman's holiday! I had fled "high crimes and misdemeanors," only to be inflicted with a short course in tort litigation in A Civil Action.

Ours is an age of specialization. With the middle class flush from stock-market profits, standard conversation is studded with boasts about the pricey advice offered by personal trainers, money managers, and college-admissions consultants. How odd that lawn care now requires technical expertise, but most Americans seem confident that they have picked up a full legal education through osmosis. A recent USA Today story highlighted a new trend: representing yourself in court. Most of the evidence in the article is anecdotal, but some statistics are offered: in two-thirds of all California domestic-relations cases, for example, someone acts as their own attorney. What intrigues me are the observations of Stuart Shiffman, an Illinois Circuit Court judge, who theorizes that this boom in do-it-yourself litigation is a direct result of televised trials. "People see what goes on now," Shiffman says, "and they think to themselves, 'I can do that.' "

What is it about the law that so mesmerizes the popular imagination? New technology (portable mini-cams and the glut of cable news channels) and changing judicial standards (courtroom cameras) provide only a partial explanation. Had there been, say, live radio coverage of the 1925 Scopes trial, I doubt that most Americans would have fancied themselves the equal of Clarence Darrow. In A Civil Action, Robert Duvall plays a distinguished Boston barrister who cynically opines, "A courtroom is not the place to look for truth." But as legalese permeates the language, and television offers gavel-to-gavel trial coverage, Americans must be looking for something in the courtroom. Does this fascination simply reflect the desire for the clarity of a verdict in the midst of a muddled decade, or does it say something deeper about the national psyche?

If one gospel defines the 1990s, it is a universal, uncritical belief in the virtues of "spin." There seems no problem that cannot be packaged, or at least artfully rearranged, by P.R. whizzes with the power to cloud men's minds. Suspicious of sincerity, Americans have grown comfortable with the notion that public advocates for all causes are hired guns and that truth is a malleable commodity. Politicians-who, despite their love of spin, all still use the outmoded language of personal conviction-are deemed particularly untrustworthy because they refuse to admit they are motivated by partisanship, not principle. In contrast, lawyers come across as straight shooters for freely conceding that their job under the advocacy system is to concoct legal and factual arguments for their clients. A courtroom, where all the major speaking parts are reserved for these paid advocates, is viewed as a uniquely honest environment because lawyers are not required to believe their own reasoning. In this topsy-turvy world, the legal profession radiates authenticity because its practitioners are genuine fakes.

But there is another reason, I suspect, why the courtroom has assumed such a dominant place in contemporary mythology. The law satisfies an unspoken American craving for an established church. At a time when personal religious beliefs increasingly are evangelical or New Age, the rituals of the legal system hark back to soaring cathedrals and awe-inspiring reverence. The Catholic mass is now conducted in the vernacular, but Latin remains the mystical language of the law. Like a formal religion, the legal system is premised on unquestioning faith in its version of the Holy Writ expressed in the Constitution, statute books, judicial opinions and English common law. Even its central tenet, justice, has religious roots. Granted, this metaphor can only be carried so far. It is hard for me to picture Calista Flockhart as a vestal virgin serving a divine legal priesthood.

To capture the essence of 1999, a modern-day Shakespeare would have to command, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers, plus all the legal groupies, and all the would-be attorneys." But then, who would possibly be left to rig the noose and man the scaffold? With legalese now enshrined as our official second language, America is just a few hospitality suites shy of becoming one vast bar association convention.

So maybe my mother's heavy investment in my early legal training wasn't wasted, even though I neglected to attend law school. For in a dreary decade defined by O.J. and impeachment, all Americans are lawyers now, whether we practice in court or just kibbitz in front of the TV screen.

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