The Annoying “Riiiiiight” in Faculty Workshops

Imagine law professor Felix Cohen giving a law faculty workshop of his famous 1935 paper, Transcendental Nonsense and the Functional Approach (here), addressing the topic of personal jurisdiction over corporations.  But pretend he is presenting the paper to a faculty today, in 2012, and tune your hear to the sound of the words he might utter when explaining his argument to those assembled.  If he followed the common gluey talk of fancy law professors today, it might be transcribed as follows:

The question of where a corporation is, right, when it incorporates in one state and has agents transacting corporate business in another state, right, cannot be answered by empirical observation, right. Nor is it a question that demands for its solution any analysis of political considerations or social ideals, right.

It is a question identical in metaphysical status, right, with the question scholastic theologians are supposed to have argued at great length, “How many angels can stand on the point of a needle?”, right.  Now it is extremely doubtful whether the scholastics actually discussed this question, right. Yet the question has become, for us, a symbol of an age in which thought without roots in reality, right, was an object of high esteem.

Will future historians, right, deal more charitably with such legal questions as “Where is a corporation?” Nobody has ever seen a corporation, right. Some of us have seen corporate funds, corporate transactions, etc., right. But this does not justify assuming that the corporation travels about from State to State as mortal men travel, right.

Yet it is exactly in these terms of transcendental nonsense, right, that the Court of Appeals approached the question of whether the Susquehanna Coal Company could be sued in New York State. “The essential thing,” said Judge Cardozo, writing for a unanimous court, right, “is that the corporation shall have come into the State.” Why this journey is essential, right, or how it is possible, we are not informed.

The opinion notes that the corporation has an office in the state, right, with eight salesmen and eleven desks, and concludes that the corporation is really “in,” right, New York State. From this inference it easily follows, right, that since a person who is in New York can be sued here, right, and since a corporation is a person, right, the Susquehanna Coal Company is subject to suit in a New York court, right.

The much-maligned “you know” would be as productive as “right” in this transcript. You rarely hear law professors insert that phrase in their speech. Too polished for that. Yet they pepper their sentences with the annoying right, usually pronounced riiiiiight, with the lilt of a rhetorical question. A lamentable institutional habit.

UPDATE IN REPLY TO THE KIND COMMENT OF EDWARD CANTU: We  had a post and conversation about So here at Co-Op, which can be viewed here.


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14 Responses

  1. Edward Cantu says:

    I notice this is a current habit among intellectuals generally; Chris Hayes on MSNBC, a super sharp guy, has this habit to the extreme. It reminds me of the “Yale ‘so'” discussed a while ago on Prawfs. Use them both in one sentence and you’ve got yourself an annoyance sandwich. 

  2. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    Guilty as charged. I think I started it as way of seeing whether my audience was on the same page as me (glances around while saying “right”). And it’s better than “uuuuhmmm,” which is a very unattractive noise.

  3. I think intellectuals are accustomed to being the smartest people present. Growing up, they must’ve gotten used to making sure others were on the same page as they. Several of my law professors have this habit, and I’m not the only one in my section who’s noticed. At least it’s better than the uncertain, insecure “anyway”!

  4. VAP says:

    I surprised myself by inserting this “right” into my job talk– I have no idea where it came from and I don’t think I’ve used it before. It was more like 4 times in 20 minutes than 4 times per sentence, though. But for me it probably served the purpose Miriam noted and replaced the valley-girl uptick.

    So it’s more like: The corporation has an office in the state, with eight salesmen and eleven desks, so the corporation is really “in” New York State, right?

    Subtext: Are you with me through here? Does that make sense?

  5. Bruce Boyden says:

    For an entirely different effect, try replacing “right” with “eh?”

  6. Jordan J. Paust says:

    Right! and also for Canadians, “eh”

  7. Orin Kerr says:

    I’m still mulling over the recent law professor trend of using the phrase “drill down” to refer to any effort to be specific about anything.

  8. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    I’ve heard “drill down” as part of business speak but when used in that context it means you are going to get into the specifics of an issue. Strange, Orin, that you seem to see it used in law for the opposite proposition.

  9. Junior Prof says:

    I’m not sure it is as annoying as the need to “interrogate”

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