Thursday, February 15, 2018
Presidents’ Weekend is upon us. Ten score and nine years ago, one of our most eloquent American writers was born. Per Professor Julie Oseid, it’s hard to pin down President Lincoln’s prowess to just one attribute. He was adept at many skills, “including alliteration, rhyme, contrast, balance, and metaphor.” (From her new book, Communicators-in-Chief) In her chapter on Lincoln, however, Oseid focuses on his ability to express a great deal in an economy of words. He developed that style during his 25 years as a trial attorney riding circuit. Collecting his legal writing became a quest for historians, and as a result Lincoln is now the most documented lawyer that we may ever have. You can see some of the work of The Lincoln Legal Papers project online. Oseid summarizes Lincoln’s strategy as not to waste arguments or words, but to use “just the necessary number of those words for essential matters.”
So many of our presidents are known for their rhetorical style that Oseid is able to build a body of work about the takeaways that we, as legal writers, can learn from our bygone leaders. Essays have appeared in Volumes 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 of Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD. Her new book brings together the rhetorical lessons from these five presidents and does so in a way that is very readable in the gestalt.
Lincoln worked hard for his brevity, pondering and editing mercilessly. He was driven by a need for universal comprehension—something every trial lawyer learns to do. His famous second inaugural address was delivered in six minutes. In 701 words he developed a timeless message of reconciliation—and 505 of the words he used were only one syllable long. His notes of his speech showed emphasis on five words, all verbs.
I asked Professor Oseid, and she agreed that Lincoln would have used Twitter masterfully and eloquently. It is interesting to pause for a few minutes and wonder how he would have used the medium. From what we know of his other writings, I strongly believe that he would have lifted it up, and us up in the process. Lincoln keenly understood that intelligent and powerful communications do not depend on vocabulary, but on conveying a theme with precision and organization.
As I celebrate my favorite presidents this weekend, I will be thinking about those legal writing lessons I can learn from them.
Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
Monday, December 19, 2016
It is the "most wonderful time of year" for law professors--grading season! So, the blogging may be a little light over the next few weeks. Still, I wanted to blog on what I have been reading when I am not reading exams.
I have been on a mission to read a biography of every president. I was inspired by Stephen Floyd, an investment banker who has been reading and reviewing presidential biographies since 2012. The Washington Post also has a list of good presidential biographies. Reading presidential biographies has added a lot to my teaching, especially in constitutional law. I was thinking the other day, however, about our early president-lawyers and effective communication.
Three of our four first presidents were trained in the law--John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. These three men were gifted writers and credited with drafting (or playing a significant role in drafting) our country's most foundational documents. Jefferson (with Adams' help) drafted the Declaration of Independence, and Madison is often called the "father of the Constitution." Madison is also well-known for his writings related to Virginia politics.
Of these three men, however, only Adams was a gifted speaker. Jefferson, Madison, and Washington, were all terrible public speakers. When they delivered public addresses to Congress people often had to strain to hear them.
With the advent of radio and television, we put much greater emphasis today on our presidents being excellent public speakers. Bill Clinton--another president-lawyer--was known as the great communicator. President Obama too is effective at pubic speaking. While these men have written books as well, as have many past presidents, these books tend to be more of the autobiographical genre, rather than the political philosophy that our early president-lawyers wrote on.
In law school we focus heavily on teaching our students to be effective legal writers. Sadly, this task is getting more difficult each year. Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and the like are changing how our students think about writing and communicating. However, we must not got weary in our task. So, grade on law professors, grade on!