October 16, 2005

"Must lawyers write badly?"

Jonathan Glater asks, a propos of David Brooks's observation that Harriet Miers's written work, as president of the Texas Bar Association, was "vapid" and "pedestrian." Glater brushes aside the explanation that bar association work requires a certain blandness to avoid controversy:
Avoiding controversy does not explain, for example, this carefully convoluted sentence Ms. Miers wrote in a September 1992 column: "We have to understand and appreciate that achieving justice for all is in jeopardy before a call to arms to assist in obtaining support for the justice system will be effective."

When lawyers write professionally they adopt the style of what they read: judicial opinions, legal briefs and law review articles, which are not scintillating stuff. For those who have a creative flair when they begin law school, keeping that spark alive requires effort. "After graduating they go into a law office somewhere where lawyerspeak is encouraged," said Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University Law School. "Once you get far enough down that road, it becomes hopeless."

There is a generic style that seems "professional," but good lawyers know there is a better level of writing that is much crisper and tighter, even if it too lacks personal style.

For personal style, lawyers blog. (I note that it was just a week ago that Glater was trying to figure out why lawyers blog.)


erp said...

Brooks either accepted the job as a conservative op/ed writer at the Times under false pretenses or he lost no time "growing" into a liberal.

ziemer said...

one need only read the judicial opinions of posner, easterbrook and evans to realize that lawyers need not write in gibberish like that.

oh, but i'm sorry, those three would all actually be qualified to be on the supreme court.

John(classic) said...

Most lawyers are mediocre legal writers.
It is not law that makes them such. They would be mediocre novelists, poets, or demagogues.

If law contributes to the problem, it is because law makes the mediocre write much.

There is one exception to this. Law professors increasingly emulate the writing of academics. Academics probably produce the worst writing of any group today -- not excepting the military, businessmen, or consumers writing grocery lists. To the degree law professors influence law students, the effect is bad.

It is getting worse. For fifteen years roughly from 1975 to 1990, I read every writing sample submitted to our law firm by applicants. I also reviewed every written document by associates in our law firm as part of their annual review. I believe I saw a pronounced deterioration in the writing skills of young lawyers over that time period. The deterioration was the intrusion of bad academic writing.

So, what are you all teaching?