Thursday, October 11, 2018
Abigail Patthoff, guest blogger, Professor of Legal Writing, Chapman University Fowler School of Law
Thinking Thursdays: Speak onto the Page
The ideal advocate is both a skilled writer and a skilled speaker. Regardless of practice area, the law is a profession of words, and lawyers must be able to effectively communicate those words whether called upon to do so in a brief, in a contract, at oral argument, or when counseling a client. Yet, many lawyers experience a certain lopsidedness in their communication skills. Some of us are more confident writers than we are speakers (this blog author included!). Others are at our most articulate when speaking rather than writing.
Professor Peter Elbow, a Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has written a book called Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing that will appeal to lawyers of both stripes. Professor Elbow’s book sets out to be both theoretical and practical. Harnessing his frustrations about the “snobbery” of the culture of “correct writing” that he posits stifles and excludes many demographics of potentially good writers, Professor Elbow states that the theoretical goal of his book is to prove that “everyone with a native language has what it takes to write well.” Along those lines, the central argument of his book is that “we can enlist the language activity that most people find easiest, speaking, for the language activity most people find hardest, writing.”
In addition to supporting his theoretical claim by marshaling a breadth of scholarship on writing and literacy, Professor Elbow offers practical suggestions for readers looking to improve their writing. The book suggests two major concrete ways to enlist speech for writing: (1) “talking onto the page” at the early stages of writing and (2) reading aloud to revise at the late stages.
Legal writing has long been criticized for being needlessly opaque. Typical speech, however, is rarely so incoherent. Most writing teachers, when faced with a confusing passage in a student work, will ask, “What did you mean here?” Usually, the student can speak a much clearer explanation of the passage than the passage itself. Professor Elbow says of this paradox, “the incoherence that comes from nonplanning is minor compared to the incoherence that comes from careful planning – unless it’s quite skilled.” In other words, while unplanned conversational speech may contain false starts, hesitations, and digressions, those aspects of speech do not interfere with the listener’s understanding nearly as much as certain aspects of planned typical writing can interfere.
Professor Elbow, however, is careful to qualify his practical advice. He recognizes that professional writing quires a final draft in “correct English.” But he proposes that until that final draft, writers should “speak onto the page” and ignore internal voices that nag and criticize when that speech doesn’t produce polished results.
In the end, as one reviewer noted, “[Professor] Elbow is his own best argument for speaking onto the page: His voice is both authoritative and affable, conversational and professorial.” Lawyers looking to silence their inner critics would benefit from “listening” to Professor Elbow’s book.
Thursday, September 13, 2018
Abigail Patthoff, guest blogger, Professor of Legal Writing, Chapman University Fowler School of Law
When the much-anticipated ALWD Citation Manual: A Professional System of Citation was first published in 2000, it was heralded by many as the answer to the legal citation woes of so many law students, law professors, and practitioners. An end to the tyranny of The Bluebook! A coup de grace!
And indeed, the manual delivered a citation system that was as user-friendly as The Bluebook is daunting. In doing so, in addition to offering more example formats, more navigable organization, and a more approachable book design, the manual also set out to improve upon the substance of the rules themselves. Most significantly, early editions of the manual eliminated The Bluebook’s double set of rules calling for different citation formats for practitioners’ documents and academic articles. The purpose was sensible – to offer a single, consistent set of rules that operate across all settings and to prioritize the kinds of citations being used in legal practice rather than legal academia.
Many legal writing programs in law schools across the country adopted the manual and a number of courts followed suit, adding the ALWD Citation Manual as a permissible alternative system of citation for court filings. Despite early enthusiasm for the ALWD Citation Manual, however, in the 18 years since its initial publication, it has not unseated The Bluebook as the most popular most widely used legal citation manual. Early adopters – myself included – met with pushback from students and colleagues about the differences between the rules in the ALWD Citation Manual and The Bluebook. Would 1Ls be adequately prepared to serve as editors of school law reviews, where The Bluebook remains entrenched? Would a generation of law students schooled in the ALWD Citation Manual be prepared to enter a practicing bar where The Bluebook was still the standard?
Under some pressure, I switched back to teaching The Bluebook. And I didn’t look back until I joined the editorial board of Legal Communication and Rhetoric: JALWD, a peer-reviewed journal, when I was assigned to do a cite check of certain journal submissions. Legal Communication and Rhetoric: JALWD requires ALWD citation format, so for the first time in four or five years I picked up a copy of the ALWD manual, which was now in its 6th edition. And it was a breath of fresh air. There was the user- and learner-friendly formatting I’d remembered, but even better. Fast formats! Charts! Abundant examples! But even more notable was this announcement, quietly made in the preface to the 5th edition: based on the feedback of ALWD members who “urged that ALWD modify its rules to acknowledge” the “staying power of certain scholarly traditions in legal citation” the ALWD Citation Manual underwent significant revision. In other words, the ALWD manual now contains no significant differences in the substance of its rules from the “traditional” rules in the most current edition of The Bluebook. As the Legal Writing Prof blog put it in a brief post acknowledging the publication of the fifth edition, “You'll no longer see differences between citations made with the Bluebook and citations made with the ALWD Manual. The only difference is that you'll be able to understand and use the ALWD Manual!”
This change was reflected in a slightly new name for the manual – the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation – but was rolled out with surprisingly little fanfare. So, consider this blog post a trumpet blast in support of the new edition. If you haven’t picked up a copy of ALWD lately, do yourself a favor and run to your preferred bookseller. The sixth edition is excellent. And now that the concerns that created barriers to adopting ALWD have been removed, my students will discover it, too.
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!