The Lawyer’s Special Word

History sometimes turns on the drama of a single word.

The word in this case is “recall”. When it’s served up 70 times by a person in one meeting, the mystery is why.

A battle of lawyers was taking place in the Senate Office Building. Gathered on one side, senators who led the judiciary committee, with degrees from Georgetown University’s, Harvard’s, and Yale’s law schools, were asking the questions.

On the other side the US’s highest ranking lawyer, the Justice Department’s Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, degree from Harvard Law School, sat with the confidence that he was backed by his boss, the President of the United States.

The two sides had squared off over Attorney General Gonzales’s firing of eight other lawyers, federal prosecutors who served in districts around the country. None of their law degrees came from Georgetown, Harvard or Yale.

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As the senators prepared to put some hard questions about these dismissals to the attorney general, one of them said, “I hope and expect we’ll be treated to a minimum of ‘I don’t recall.’” At the end of the day the same senator told Attorney General Gonzales, “You’ve answered ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I can’t recall’ to close to a hundred questions.”

He said “can’t recall” or “don’t recall” about 60 times the day of his testimony.

a lawyering JD degree from Harvard at that time cost about $60,000 a year, over 3 years. You’d expect someone coming out of such a program to have a better command of legal English than that.

Imagine how cheated he must have felt. Just when a law degree is most important in your career- not over some trivial mundane issue like deciding a murder case, or how long to keep someone in jail without a trial – your education lets you down. Imagine if you spent the whole day stammering “I don’t recall”, like some kid in front of a broken window questioned by his parents, just rolling his eyes and looking at the ceiling when nothing clever comes to mind.

Here are some examples from his testimony: “I don’t recall the specific mention of this conversation”; “Senator, that I don’t recall remembering.”" I don’t recall the reason why I that accept the decision”; “I don’t recall the conversation. I don’t recall whether or not I was present. I suspect I probably was, but I don’t recall.”

That’s not the level we’ve been led to expect from Harvard. Behind its ivy shrouded brick halls we imagine with awe deep learning going on inside. We don’t want the fantasy broken by hearing “I don’t recall” parroted over and over again by one of its alumni. Is a “Gonzales v. Harvard” lawsuit may be in order. At least he could demain a hefty refund.

Let’s look at the problem. We can guess that Attorney General Gonzales chose “I don’t recall” because it has the virtue of being less clear and more adult-sounding than “I forget” or “I’m not going to tell you”. It’s also less guilty-sounding than claiming the constitutional 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination. “Recall” can be intentional, or out of your control. So if you’re caught out later withholding information, you could argue you haven’t technically lied.

But let’s consider some alternatives neglected by the Harvard law school education. How about: “it slipped my mind”? Or I’m “drawing a blank”? Maybe I “lost sight of that”, “took no note of it”, or “that’s fallen into oblivion”. Possibly, “my hard drive crashed”. (Millions of emails have disappeared in this case). Or just “I’ve gone blotto”?

Here’s some useful advice from Confucius: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” From Rachel Carson: the sense of smell, almost more than any other, has the power to recall memories and it is a pity that you use it so little.”

Maybe the chief legal officer already has his personal philosophy thought out. It might fit Laurence J. Peter’s: “Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear but forgetting where you heard it.” Or Sholem Asch’s: “Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition for our existence.”

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