Say what?

Lisa Henderson-Newlin, The Levison Group

I recently went to dinner with my husband and several of his colleagues. I did this partially because I’m an amazing wife, but partially because the dinner included toasted ravioli and homemade rolls. I’m a sucker for both fried foods and complex starches (and most likely in a few years ... gout).

My husband is not a lawyer, which is a good thing, because I like to win every argument.

He has a master’s degree, works at a reputable university, and is a very smart man. But then again, you already knew that, because I said he wasn’t a lawyer (and that he is married to me). Whenever we do anything with his colleagues, they end up engaging in “shop talk” about issues in their industry. I rarely know what they’re talking about, but I rarely care, as the options of flavored butter typically distract me.

However, these conversations got me to thinking about lawyers and how we engage in our own kind of “shop talk.” Or maybe it is more of “courtroom talk.” Others would probably call it “blowing smoke” or “leaking hot air.” Whatever it’s called, I started to wonder if non-lawyers ever wonder what lawyers mean when they say certain things.

In response to this query, I’ve decided to translate several legalese statements into words and definitions so others can understand the terms and what they mean. I realize that most non-lawyers will thank me, as these translations will most likely make “Law and Order” even more enjoyable than it already is. You’re welcome.

“I need a continuance.” This is really a lawyer’s way of saying “I’ll deal with this later.” Instead of saying you don’t want to talk to opposing counsel or the judge about an issue, the magical phrase “request a continuance” is one typically chanted by lawyers who are long on caffeine and short on time. When translated to English, what it really means is “I don’t have the time or energy to deal with you or this case. Better luck at the next docket setting.”

“You want to play hardball? Fine with me.” This phrase is only used by octogenarian lawyers with pacemakers and an assistant holding their files, or Joe Pesci in “My Cousin Vinny.” However, on the rare occasion this phrase is uttered, what it really means is “I don’t have a legal position that’s supported by evidence, and I’m hoping this threat of playing a recreational sport will scare you into doing something ridiculous to get this case to go away.” The next time someone says this to me, I’m going to suggest we play Taboo instead, because I can really rock that game.

“I’m waiting on a report.” This translates to “I haven’t scheduled an evaluation with an expert but I’m going to frantically email my assistant from the urinal stall so she can get it set up immediately.” NOTE: This phrase is frequently used in conjunction with “I need a continuance.”

“I’m not sure if he is in the office and available. May I ask who is calling?” This is the receptionist’s nice way of saying “This lawyer is screening calls to make sure you aren’t someone he is avoiding or someone he has a restraining order against.” I always feel successful when I break the barrier of the receptionist’s screen, and get to speak to the lawyer I’ve called. Strangely, I never feel guilty about alleging I’m the principal of their child’s school and calling about an emergency.

“He’s not available at the moment. Would you like to leave a message?” This is the saddest of all translations. This means you didn’t get past the first round of security, which is a bit depressing considering this first barrier is typically a middle aged woman with a desk full of magazines and a raging Sudoku habit. When this rejection occurs, don’t think back to your junior high school days when you didn’t make the flag team. That will only make things worse. Rather, resort to email to see if the person you are calling will respond using another medium. If he won’t, the only logical and professional way to handle the situation is to inundate him with forwards and political cartoons until he begs for mercy. When he finally does, you can talk to him about the issue you initially called about. It’s a win-win.

Hopefully these translations will help to break down the communication barriers that often occur when speaking with lawyers. If not, do what I do when I’m out with my husband’s colleagues, and focus on the food. It won’t let you down. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a continuance...


Lisa Henderson-Newlin is a member of the law firm McAnany Van Cleave and Phillips. Contact Under Analysis by email at
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