03 October 2004

Whorf Rats

Benjamin Whorf is one of the more-influential philosophers you may never have heard of. He's not in the canon of philosophers studied in basic survey courses; he's certainly no Aristotle, or Kant, or Nietzsche. And, to tell the truth, his greatest insight came when he was studying insurance claims. That insight, in its strongest form, is this:

Language Determines Reality.

Whorf's investigation of accident causes led him to this conclusion. For example, a nasty fire that broke out in a tannery. The fire broke out because sparks from fan motors used to ventilate the space were blown out into it, which in turn caused flammable chemicals to ignite. Whorf went beyond the physical cause, though, and tried to determine why the fans had not been put at the air-path exits, which would have sent any sparks outside the space in which the flammable chemicals were in use while still circulating air. Whorf's interviews with employees and architects disclosed a linguistic cause for this particular mishap: Fans blow; they don't suck. People just didn't connect the symbol "fan" to anything that operated from the far side of where the airflow was needed.

Although Whorf's hypothesis in its strong form doesn't really stand up to close examination, the weaker form "Language limits perceptions of reality" does. And so we turn to legal ethics, and a story in today's NYT that uncovers some particularly ugly boils on the butt of the legal profession.

Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr., an ethics expert who is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said the suits pending against Weil Gotshal were an unfortunate result of the intense competition for new business. "You've got to keep those new cases coming in," he said. And as firms have become more focused on "one-shot engagements," he said, trust has deteriorated on both sides of the relationship: "Lawyers are dealing with clients they don't trust, and clients are dealing with lawyers they don't trust."

Karen Donovan, "When Big Law Firms Trip Over Their Own Clients" (03 Oct 2004) (emphasis added). Go ahead and reread the paragraph. Can you spot the word that does not appear there, or indeed anywhere else in the article?


There is nothing whatsoever wrong with making a profit from the profession of law (or any other profession). Even professionals need to eat. The problem is that when law is viewed as a business, and not as a profession, one ends up allowing money to push all considerations through the hazards, instead of pulling money out on the far side of the hazards. On the basis solely of what was described in the article, one of the two clients has a clear and proper claim against the firm because it forgot the first rule of being a professional: A professional only serves one "master" at a time. And that master had better not be Mammon, because he just can't seem to get beyond short-term profitability as a measure of success.