Legal Writing

Federal judges don’t always tell lawyers that their writing is crap, but when they do, they’ll do it in a publicly filed court order. Because while judges have got many a tool in their benchslapping arsenal, a public shaming is perhaps the most useful of them all.

Today’s instance of public shaming comes to us courtesy of Judge Steven Merryday (M.D. Fla.), the same fellow who denied a motion to suspend trial in a death penalty case from an attorney who wanted to participate in an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest.

Let’s jump right in and see what happened, because this judge had a field day with redlining….

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What was the most anxiety-ridden ten minutes I’ve experienced under an editor’s gaze?

I had finished the manuscript of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law. My then-15-year-old son, Jeremy (who, like any teenager, would as soon spit in his father’s eye as praise him), said: “So, Dad, you wrote a book, huh?”

“Yes, Jere.”

Long pause. “Let me see the first chapter.”

I knew exactly what the kid was thinking: “I guess, if my Dad wrote a book, I should take a look. But this is going to be unbearable. So I’ll read a few pages and be done with it.”

Jeremy sat in the family room reading chapter one. I paced anxiously in the kitchen. My wife didn’t understand my anxiety: “Why are you so nervous? It’s only Jeremy.”

“Don’t you see? Jeremy’s my first truly neutral reader. He’s not a lawyer. He’s not inclined to read the thing. He won’t cut me any breaks. If Jeremy likes it, there’s a chance there’s actually an audience for this thing.”

After a few more anxiety-ridden minutes, Jeremy walked into the kitchen. After a seemingly endless pause: “Let me see chapter two….”

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Here is an excerpt from Manhertz v. State, handed down on October 9 by the Georgia Court of Appeals:

Specifically, Joyner explained that she met a dancer at a strip club, who went by the stage name Paradise. After a brief conversation, Paradise asked Joyner how she was employed, and Joyner informed her that she worked as an assistant manager at an apartment complex. Paradise responded by informing Joyner that she had a friend named Kane, who would pay $1,000 for tenants’ names, social-security numbers, driver’s-license numbers, and copies of signed checks. Joyner agreed to do so and later provided Paradise with the requested information. However, Joyner asserted that she was never paid any money. And although Joyner claimed that she went back to the strip club on one or two occasions in an attempt to collect the promised payment, she was unable to find Paradise — no doubt finding little comfort in the axiom that “solitude sometimes is best society.” [FN2]

Keep reading for the fun footnote….

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Ed. note: This is the first installment in a new series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, for the benefit of newly arrived (or soon-to-arrive) first-year associates, we have some advice from Ross Guberman on writing for the toughest audience they’ll ever face.

With the help of many clients, I recently surveyed thousands of law-firm partners about the writing skills they want to see associates develop.

Across the country and across practice areas, partners agree on what they’d like to change about associate drafts. I’ve organized their responses according to my Four Steps to Standout Legal Writing. I’ve also included a fifth category that covers usage and mechanics.

A few sample responses follow.

Step One: Concision

Partners say they spend too much time cutting clutter and other distractions from associate drafts. Anything that interrupts the message — wordy phrases, jargon, legalese, redundancy, blather, hyperbole — is a candidate for the chopping block.

Read more at the ATL Career Center….

What a weird situation…. [But Justice Scalia] is an incredible game player, using intellectual honesty as a trope, and that is the kind of thing that David Wallace would just love.

Elizabeth Wurtzel, the successful writer turned lawyer and legal commentator, on the surprising friendship between her close friend, David Foster Wallace, and Justice Antonin Scalia.

(The background behind Justice Scalia’s interest in Wallace, after the jump.)

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In case you’re wondering, there was no major news out of the U.S. Supreme Court this morning. Our friends at SCOTUSblog predict that opinions in the marquee cases, such as the Arizona immigration case and the health care reform case (aka Obamacare), will be issued next week. (Above the Law’s own Supreme Court correspondent, Matt Kaiser, should have a more detailed write-up of this morning’s proceedings later today.)

But we do have some SCOTUS-related news to mention this morning (and not just the latest in law clerk hiring). Did you know that Justice Antonin Scalia has a new book out, hitting stores tomorrow?

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Laurence Silberman

Here, both parties abandoned any attempt to write in plain English, instead abbreviating every conceivable agency and statute involved, familiar or not, and littering their briefs with references to ‘SNF,’ ‘HLW,’ ‘NWF,’ ‘NWPA,’ and ‘BRC’…

– Senior Judge Laurence Silberman, writing for the D.C. Circuit, in a footnote lamenting the litigants’ in National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners v. United States Department of Energy overuse of alphabet soup.

I mentioned last week that I recently moderated a panel of in-house lawyers at Schnader Harrison’s annual retreat. Always happy to share, I’m gathering here my existing thoughts on writing articles to develop legal business plus some new ideas suggested by the panelists. And, because handy lists get clipped and saved, I’m putting those thoughts into a list.

What are the ten rules for writing an article that will generate legal business for the author?

1. Write about a substantive issue, not a procedural one.

No one in the history of the world has retained a lawyer because the lawyer was the world’s greatest authority on Federal Rule of Evidence 403 or how to remove an action to federal court. People hire 10b-5 lawyers, not removal lawyers. If you’re writing to generate business, write on a substantive topic, not a procedural one.

2. Write about a niche area of the law.

If you write an article about some clever provision that a real estate lawyer should put in a lease, potential clients will read your article, send your article to their existing real estate lawyers, and ask the incumbents whether the incumbents have considered this idea and are able to put it to use. Your article thus educated the world and may have generated business for incumbent counsel, but it didn’t generate any business for you.

Niches are better. If you write about a niche area of the law — I’ve previously suggested that Colorado escheat law is wide open — the client’s incumbent firm won’t be able to provide the service that you’ve written about. If you’re writing to generate business, you don’t want to just suggest ideas that other lawyers can easily use.

3. . . .

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Majority opinions are hardly sitting ducks for the criticism dissentals may heap on them. If a panel majority finds that a dissental scores some valid points, it can modify its opinion to eliminate the problem, something that happens regularly in the Ninth Circuit. Indeed, fear that internal criticisms will be taken public often causes judges to moderate outlier opinions so as to present a smaller target for public criticism and possible certiorari. One of us (yes, the hot one) is even aware of a case where the panel withdrew its opinion and reversed the result, after winning the en banc vote, in the teeth of a stinging dissental.

– Chief Judge Alex Kozinski (9th Cir.) and his former law clerk, James Burnham of Jones Day, in a Yale Law Journal online essay entitled I Say Dissental, You Say Concurral (defending the practice of filing a dissental, aka dissenting from the denial of rehearing en banc).

(Additional discussion, after the jump.)

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I occasionally take advantage of my little megaphone here at Above the Law to vent about poor quality drafts. When I do, “commenters” or correspondents routinely suggest that I’m tilting at windmills: “If you receive a poor quality draft, send it back to the person who wrote it, and tell that person to make it better. There’s no reason why you, Mark, should be saddled with improving the thing.”

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again!

I’m absolutely saddled with improving the thing. It often makes no sense at all to return a bad draft to the author and ask for a better draft. In fact, I submit that there are only two situations in which it does make sense to ask the original author to improve a draft . . .

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