Legal Writing

dartboard pen on target inside straightFirst, an example; then, a rant.

Here’s the example: I attended a mediation. The mediator gave each side 20 minutes to make an opening presentation. After one advocate had spoken for 80 — you read that right: 80 — minutes, the mediator suggested that it was time for him to wrap up.

The guy flipped through his notes, said that he still had a lot of material to cover, and then offered: “To speed things up, I’ll just bullet-point my arguments.”

Before the “continue reading” icon, I’ll note the lessons to be learned from this tale that are not the subject of today’s rant. First: If you’re given 20 minutes to speak, speak for 20 minutes. Got that?

Second: If you’re given 20 minutes to speak, you drone on for 80 minutes, and the mediator then suggests that it’s time for you to wrap up, you may speak for about two more sentences. Then, it’s time to sit down. Got that?

Third, and the most valuable lesson — instructive, yet infused with a certain dry wit — . . . .

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In the mists of the ancient past, the American legal profession agreed to cede responsibility for developing a consistent citation method to the most anal-retentive of law school gunners determined to lord their mastery of unnecessary commas over people. Ultimately, the whole thing is an exercise in hazing law students. Torturing students over questions of underlining or italics is kind of a lame hazing ritual, but long gone are the days when a young Louis Brandeis was dared by ne’er-do-well Harvard 3Ls to head down to the local theater and yell “Fire!”

But the Bluebook is also a cash cow because every lawyer needs to own a copy that they’ll promptly ignore because in the real world, everyone blindly trusts their online research database to get it right and barring that, no one much cares about the minutiae of the Bluebook as long as everyone can easily find the source. Besides, you can get close enough for government work with the outdated ratty copy you were issued in law school. Very few judges are going to flip out if you signal “See” where you could just insert the cite.

Now that cash cow is in jeopardy, because one law professor thinks he can get everyone a free copy of the Stickler’s Bible. How, you ask?

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I recently had the good fortune to hear Ian McEwan (author of the wonderful Atonement, among other books) and Steven Pinker (a name I’d never heard before — yet more proof of my vast ignorance) discuss what makes good writing. McEwan is of course a gifted novelist; Pinker is a cognitive scientist who thinks about (among other things) how children acquire language skills. This made for an interesting discussion.

Both authors had recently published new books. If you don’t want to spring for the price of Pinker’s book, you can read the nutshell version of his thesis in his recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

I stole the title of this column from Pinker’s talk. Pinker says that many people blame the internet for the younger generation’s inability to write clearly. But if Twitter’s the culprit — “the kids these days can write only 140-character sentence fragments” — then the world should have been awash in pristine prose in the days before Twitter.

We were not, of course. Most writing sucked in the ’90s, too. And in the ’80s. And the ’70s. And, according to Pinker, people have been complaining about bad writing in literally every generation since the invention of the printing press.

So it would be nice — but wrong — to blame today’s bad writing on modern technology.

If technology isn’t the culprit, then what is? Pinker’s thesis is one that I suspect all good legal writers have known subconsciously all along. But it’s worth speaking the words out loud and thinking about how to use this concept to improve both your writing and the writing of those you edit. . . .

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David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace died six years ago today, on September 12, 2008. The author of novels such as Infinite Jest, The Pale King, and essay collections such as A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again hanged himself in the garage of his California home. DFW was 46.
David Foster Wallace was a lawyer’s writer, if ever one could use that label without intending insult. DFW was not a lawyer, though he famously became friends and collaborators with legal writing expert Bryan Garner. Garner’s co-author Justice Antonin Scalia is also said to be a fan. Countless attorneys who haven’t cracked a novel in years will brighten at the mention of DFW. Analytical, language-obsessed, and neurotic, he may have captured the modus operandi of many lawyers as well as any novelist or essayist could.

David Foster Wallace, especially for a fiction writer, was logical, analytical. He never quite left behind the mindset of the analytic philosophy student he once was. Wallace’s senior thesis in modal logic was published posthumously. His senior thesis in English became his first published novel, The Broom of the System. He wrote lit for STEM geeks and logic nerds . . . including the many STEM geeks and logic nerds who later ended up in law. (Myself included.)

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Keith Lee

Because I’m a glutton for punishment (I’m writing for ATL aren’t I?), every now and then I will trawl through SSRN to see if there is anything worthwhile to read. Usually there isn’t. Mostly it’s stuff like Harry Potter and the Law or whatever. It can be hard finding substantive, interesting material to read among the cruft. The other problem is that the authors are publishing articles in law reviews — which no one reads. It’s far better to submit an article to a blog (or set up your own), if you really want to reach people. I gather the point is not to be read, but instead to have an extra line on your résumé. But I digress.

I stumbled across an older (2003) article on the perceptions of various members of the profession on the writing skills of new lawyers entitled How Judges, Practitioners  and Legal Writing Teachers Assess the Writing Skills of New Law Graduates: A Comparative Study, by Susan Hanley Kosse and David T. Ritchie.

It is a rather broad study covering a number of issues that arise from the quality of legal writing among new lawyers. In particular how established members of the profession view the writing skills of new lawyers. So how did they fare?

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Bryan A. Garner

This May, Thomson Reuters published the tenth edition of the estimable Black’s Law Dictionary (affiliate link). The most widely cited legal book in the world, Black’s is a must-have for every lawyer and law student.

Henry Campbell Black published the first edition in 1891. Starting with the publication of the seventh edition in 1995, Black’s has been edited by Professor Bryan A. Garner, the noted lexicographer, legal-writing expert, and author of such books as Garner’s Modern American Usage, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, and Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (the last two co-authored with Justice Antonin Scalia (affiliate links)).

I met with Garner during his recent visit to New York, where he taught his famous legal-writing course to various law firms and government employers. His voice was hoarse from a summer cold, but he generously soldiered through an interview with the help of some tea. Here’s a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our conversation.

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Think you can write? Do these four things.

First, pull out the last brief that you wrote.

Not that one — that’s the final version, edited by guys who could write. We’re looking for your work, untouched by others. Find the unedited draft that you first circulated. (If you don’t have a draft brief handy, that’s okay. Find the last long email that you sent to someone who matters — to the partner, the client, the general counsel, or the CEO.)

Second, click through this link, which will tell you how to enable Microsoft Word’s “readability” feature on your computer. Enable that feature.

Third, let the readability feature score your work.

Finally, take a handkerchief and wipe the spit out of your eye. (I bet you didn’t realize that a computer could spit in your eye.)

You didn’t notice the spit? Here it comes: Compare your readability score to the average readability score for the works of bestselling authors. . . .

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Petitioner’s brief, unfortunately, was laden with obscure acronyms notwithstanding the admonitions in our handbook (and on our website) to avoid uncommon acronyms. Since the brief was signed by a faculty member at Columbia Law School, that was rather dismaying both because of ignorance of our standards and because the practice constitutes lousy brief writing.

– Judge Laurence Silberman of the D.C. Circuit, condemning a brief for an abundance of acronyms.

(More information — including the identity of the offending professor, and the full opinion — after the jump.)

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I’ve come under criticism recently, either expressly or implicitly.

I tell new lawyers to write in short sentences.

Very short.

My preferred writing style is “Modern American Snowplow.”

Others insist that I’m too strident. Mark Osbeck, who teaches legal writing at The University of Michigan Law School, has published a law review article (it’s the fourth one down) criticizing The Curmudgeon’s Guide To Practicing Law because my book over-emphasizes the need for short sentences.

I have two reactions. First, thank you! Let’s debate these issues in public! And, so long as you spell my name right, you’re doing us both a favor!

Second, I’m right, and you’re wrong! Why? Because I’ve never in my life reviewed the work of a new lawyer and thought: “This draft would be pretty good if only it used a bunch of longer sentences. The cure to what ails this brief is to add some complexity to it.” If you were honest with yourself, Professor Osbeck, you’d admit that you’ve never seen that, either. On the other hand, both you and I frequently see sentences that desperately need to buy a period. So what should we teach — the rule or the exception?

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At a law firm, law matters. Law is the center of the institution’s universe, and it’s all everyone is thinking about.

It’s the other functions that don’t matter: “Another email from IT? Telling me about interfaces and gigabytes? Why don’t those clowns leave me alone?”

“Another email from finance hectoring me about time sheets? Don’t those morons know I’m busy?”

At corporations, law (and compliance) is an “other function.” The businesses are concentrating on their businesses, and law and compliance — along with human resources, information technology, and finance — are, at best, a means to an end. If you mirror the other “shared services” and send incomprehensible communications to the businesses, the businesses will soon realize that you’re just one of the pests, meant to be ignored.

Inevitably, if a business person accidentally steps over some legal line, you’ll hear that the business guy had no clue that the line existed: “Yeah, yeah. Now that you’re telling me about it, I understand that we have that rule. But how was I to know? The rule is buried on the fourth page of some impenetrable policy hidden somewhere in our computer system. I spend my time selling; I can’t waste time trying to make sense of your legalese.”

If you don’t sympathize with that guy, then you’ve been a lawyer for too long. His criticism is not just an excuse for having violated the rules; his criticism may well be the truth. How can you change that reality?

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