This phrase is often quoted in a humorous manner to depict the legal profession. It certainly can have different meanings. At worst, it implies that the law is subservient to personal relationships and that a judge will give different decisions based upon who stands before him or her making the same argument. While North Carolina has in fact seen misconduct among the judiciary (see In re: Denise S. Hartsfield as one recent example), the instances of such misconduct are rare.
It is misconduct for an attorney to seek to influence a judge by a means prohibited by law, to communicate ex-parte with a judge (some exceptions apply) or to even imply that they can influence the judge through some personal relationship (See the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct). And it is also incumbent upon judges to maintain integrity and independence. In fact that is “rule 1” of the rules for judges (See the NC Code of Judicial Conduct) and judges who become aware of inappropriate conduct of lawyers must initiate disciplinary action against them.
However, I don’t see this phrase in a negative light. In fact, I believe that the judges we appear before remain on the bench because they are committed to helping the citizens who elected them to serve. And I understand it to mean that the “great lawyer” is the one who:
- Knows the Local Rules;
- Knows the Local Customs;
- Uses the Local Forms;
- Knows the Manner in Which the Judge prefers to Hear Evidence;
- Knows the Time limits for various hearings;
- Knows the Judge’s Pet Peeves;
- Knows the Background of the Judge; and
- Knows how the Judge May Likely Rule on an Issue.
An attorney who aspires to know the judge in these ways is better prepared for Court and can better communicate the legal argument because he/she “knows the audience.” In this sense, the phrase is quite appropriate and professional and builds up our profession rather than tearing it down. Therefore, the quote rings true and it is our duty as lawyers — as professionals — to know the judge before whom we practice.