Conferences / Symposia

Lost in Translation? Writing About the Law for a Non-Legal Audience

Writing About the Law New York Law School NYLS Above the Law.jpgWe’re at the next panel of the day at the New York Law School conference on legal writing.
Morning Panel #2 (11:00–12:15): Lost in Translation? Writing About the Law for a Non-Legal Audience
“Writing about law for a lay audience poses its own unique challenges. What is lost and what is gained by having to translate complex legal concepts into concise news reporting, incisive commentary or compelling drama?”
Panelists and Moderator:
* Adam Cohen, editorial board member, The New York Times.
* Jamie Heller, Deputy Managing Editor, The Wall Street Journal Online.
* Richard Sweren, writer and co-executive producer, Law & Order.
* Dahlia Lithwick, Supreme Court reporter, Slate.
* Brandt Goldstein (Moderator), Visiting Associate Professor of Law, New York Law School.
Discussion after the jump.

Ed. note: Yes, we’re liveblogging this. Refresh your browser for updates, which will be appended as the discussion unfolds.
Random interesting comments by the panelists (in no particular order, and paraphrased, rather roughly, by yours truly):
Adam Cohen: One of the tough things about writing about the law for a large, lay audience, like that of the New York Times, is that people are always complaining about things you left out. “How could you have missed X?” “The most important part of the story is Y!”
(We couldn’t agree more.)
Dahlia Lithwick: The problem with writing about the law is that people just don’t care that much about legal affairs. We’re not an “A1″ crowd; we’re like an “A18″ crowd. And complex legal issues are hard to explain — e.g., the habeas corpus / detainees’ rights cases. This is tough stuff to write about accessibly AND accurately. It’s not all Anna Nicole Smith.
Jamie Heller: We confront this problem even at the Wall Street Journal, with an audience that you’d expect to be more sophisticated. We have to make difficult choices every day about what to cover and not to cover.
Adam Cohen: I’ve studied the jurisprudence of Judge Judy extensively. She has a clear bias gainst people from the lower middle class. Once I saw a litigant introduce his girlfriend to testify about something. She opened her mouth and revealed she had no teeth. I thought to myself, “Uh-oh, now she’s going to get it from Judge Judy.” And she did.
Richard Sweren: We based a number of episodes on a Lynne Stewart-type character. Stories about moral and ethical dilemmas faced by lawyers are some of the most interesting ones out there.
Dahlia Lithwick: Unfortunately, the legal stories with the broadest currency are blonde children getting kidnapped, somebody molesting their niece, shoplifting by Winona Ryder.
Great quote from Lithwick: “Here’s what’s going on with habeas corpus. It doesn’t look good in a skirt; but it’s really really important that you understand it.”

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