Monday, October 25, 2010

Newman's Lessons for Legal Writers

Ben Shatz -- LACBA Appellate Court Committee chair, incoming State Bar Committee on Appellate Court chair, and all-around appellate guru -- has written another engaging DJ article.

This one is a paean to legendary reporter Edwin Newman, whose "lessons on using language with exactness and grace should have particular resonance with lawyers, who, after all, must strive to speak and write clearly, concisely, and correctly. Put differently, lawyers - who make their living through arranging words - are particularly susceptible to the misuses Newman worked so hard to expose and eradicate."

Pick up the Oct. 21 edition for the full version.  Here's a sample to encourage you:

"Words frequently misused by lawyers and the public in general are legion. Newman vigorously joined the raging grammar wars in battles against the incorrect use of "me," "hopefully" and "parameter" - the latter of which remains a favorite with the practicing bar. There is also the alarm about the improper shunning of the word "me" - which commonly and distressingly is being replaced by either "I" or the reflexive "myself." Similarly, in an attempt at hyper-correction, many educated people who should know better have taken to saying "I feel badly," when they mean to say "I feel bad." (Feeling badly is a neurological disorder; feeling bad is a sorrowful emotional state.) All those law students and lawyers who have uncracked copies of "Black's Law Dictionary" on their shelves should consider trading them in for another Bryan Garner opus, his "Garner's Modern American.

"But back to Newman. Here is a prime example of Newman's sarcasm, with a lesson for lawyers: "AP story from October 5, 1973: 'Buenos Aires, Argentina - A high-ranking police officer was shot to death in front of his home Thursday night in the fourth political murder since Juan D. Peron was elected President less than two weeks ago.' Juan D. Peron. The D. is there is keep you from confusing Juan D. Peron with the Juan Q. Peron also elected president of Argentina two weeks earlier." Newman's point is that although middle initials are thought to add authenticity and the ring of history, they most often are painfully unnecessary. Lawyers are guilty of this too, typically using middle initials (and other superfluous detail) to lend an air of exactness, when in nearly all cases such extra information is entirely useless. Unless you happen to be litigating the case of John A. Smith versus John B. Smith, there is little need to belabor the parties' middle initials."

Ben concludes, "Those who share his vision should continue to oppose verbiage and strive for direct, specific, concrete, colorful, subtle, imaginative writing. Newman's lessons live on; his advice remains sound. Although several of his linguistic causes have been lost, hopefully he can forgive us."