New Zealand Law Society - Why lawyers are like lobsters

Why lawyers are like lobsters

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I have never seen or heard of any judge ever being rude to counsel or even moderately unkind. This is regrettable. If the justice system is to be truly efficient, every judge should always be extremely rude to every counsel.

Coherence, precision and brevity must be extracted from counsel, against their will if necessary. This can only be achieved through the application of some great amercement or excruciation.

The situation is comparable to that of the chef (who, like a judge, is a highly skilled expert) and the lobster (which, like counsel, is a brainless invertebrate).

The cooking of the latter by the former is best achieved (in terms of taste at least) by plunging the live lobster into boiling water. Every chef knows that a lobster in this situation will say exactly what it wants to say in the most concise and emphatic way: it screams. It brings one to the essence of the matter immediately.

(There is some debate about whether a lobster actually screams in this situation. Lobsters have no throat, vocal cord or lungs. The sound may be no more than gas escaping from its body. This distinction makes little difference when one is discussing counsel’s submissions.)

It is true that a plunge into boiling water and attendant death is an extreme step (at least from the lobster’s point of view). Therefore I do not exclude the possibility of more subtle and refined methodologies. For example, a lobster may be held with prongs directly above the boiling water so that it is scalded by the steam. While the lobster might hold out hope that it will not actually be plunged into the water, it can be under no illusions about the omnipotence of the chef.

Truly skilled chefs may also take the opportunity to lower the lobster so close to the water that its underbelly starts to turn red, while at the same time taunting it with witty insights, wry sarcasm or clever invective. This may well extract relevant concessions. If not, there is no reason why the lobster should not be plunged into the boiling water for just an instant and then withdrawn. The lobster will be horribly scalded, but not dead.

It is pleasant to observe the extent to which the lobster’s belligerence is thus subdued. Impotent humility is the inevitable consequence. If this leads (as it must) to permanent servility there may be no need to plunge the lobster into the water again.

It is also worth keeping in mind the circumstances of the other lobsters waiting their turn in the tank. These lobsters will be crammed together, not at all comfortable but alive nevertheless. More importantly, they must enjoy an unimpeded view of the stove such that they cannot fail to notice when one of their number is plucked from the tank and plunged into boiling water.

Here I emphasise the utility of occasionally maiming a lobster without killing it. The maimed lobster should then be returned to the tank. Its stupefied presence will, I can guarantee, have a salutary effect on its colleagues, so much so that subservient brevity must ensue. It may even result in some lobsters electing complete silence, which is a happy eventuality for the chef who, if nothing else, will find lobsters’ screams a real inconvenience.

The torture and summary execution of lobsters are essential to the smooth and efficient administration of a restaurant. It hardly needs to be said that the chef is empowered, even obliged, to treat lobsters in this way.

There is a school of thought that doomed lobsters should be spared from pain (if indeed a brainless invertebrate with a primitive nervous system suffers any pain).

I am not aware that any chef subscribes to this view. However, those who do may moderate their concerns by placing the lobster into the freezer for no less than 20 minutes before plunging it into boiling water. This will dull any pain which it would otherwise feel. Alternatively, the lobster may be placed on a board, underside up, at which point the chef should thrust a knife into its head and then slam it down so that the body is neatly divided down the middle. As you may expect, this will have an immediate and decisive effect and is painless once the knife meets the board.

Some may argue that there is something unseemly about a chef dispensing with a lobster in these ways, or that it somehow diminishes the esteem in which chefs – and restaurants – are otherwise held.

Others would point out that lobsters are quite wonderful creatures, with their amalgam of legs, claws, antennae and mandibles, their complex exoskeleton and blue blood.

Still others assert that the chef is nothing without the lobster. These concerns are misconceived. Lobsters do little more than scrabble around aimlessly on the dark ocean floor searching for dead crustaceans. The skilled chef provides the lobster with the opportunity to give its life in pursuit of a culinary masterpiece, or at least a really tasty meal. Even the most churlish lobster would be grateful for this.

Certainly a chef need never be concerned about whether the lobster has any respect for their abilities as a chef. The transaction we are discussing, namely the cooking of a lobster by a chef, can only end in one way. Whether the chef has the skill to produce a succulent meal or only tasteless sludge is quite irrelevant. Either way, the lobster has been boiled.

Unlike judges, chefs can be competitive and even desirous of acclaim, hence the preponderance of celebrity cooking shows. These chefs have an interest in refining the art of showing as little mercy as possible, if only so that they may boast to each other.

Judges may find much to commend this approach.

When a chef shares a succulent cooked lobster with other chefs, the taste becomes ever more exquisite when accompanied by an account of how it surrendered to the chef, how the other lobsters quivered in their tank and how no lobster will dare do anything other than submit to its own demise in humble, even grateful, silence.

Marcus Elliott is a barrister at Canterbury Chambers in Christchurch. He specialises in civil litigation and is also on the Christchurch Crown Prosecution Panel. He was counsel assisting the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission. He is on the Council of the Bar Association and is a Standards Committee member. His writing can be found at He also blogs at If pressed under oath he would be compelled to admit that he is Australian.

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