July 16, 2011

Look To the Writers

The July 2011 issue of the Texas Bar Journal features an article by Douglas E. Abrams, What Great Writers Can Teach Lawyers And Judges: Wisdom From Plato To Mark Twain To Stephen King (Part I).

As Professor Abrams (University of Missouri, Columbia) writes in his article,

Like most other close analogies, analogies between literature and legal writing may be imperfect at their edges. “Literature is not the goal of lawyers,” wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter nearly 80 years ago, “though they occasionally attain it.”“The law,” said Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes even earlier, “is not the place for the artist or the poet.”

Despite some imperfections across disciplines, advice from well-known fiction and non-fiction writers can serve lawyers and judges well because law, in its essence, is a literary profession heavily dependent on the written word. There are only two types of writing — good writing and bad writing. As poet (and Massachusetts Bar member) Archibald MacLeish recognized, good legal writing is simply good writing about a legal subject. “[L]awyers would be better off,” said MacLeish, “if they stopped thinking of the language of the law as a different language and realized that the art of writing for legal purposes is in no way distinguishable from the art of writing for any other purpose.”

As Justices Frankfurter and Holmes intimated, the tone and cadence of non-lawyer writers might vary from those of professionals who write in the law. Variance aside, however, the core aim of any writer, lawyers and judges included, remains constant — to convey ideas through precise, concise, simple, and clear expression.
[Footnotes omitted].

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