This post could be alternatively titled: “Beware The Interloper With The Pen,” or “Why I’m Not A Great Team Player At The Writing Table.” In a recent article in the ABA Journal,”Why Lawyers Can’t Write, legal writing pro Bryan Garner discusses why lawyers often think they’re far better writers than they really are. The article is perceptive. He attributes our collective blindness to our inadequacy on a phenomenon termed the Dunning-Kruger effect. Here’s what he says:
“In 1999, two Cornell psychologists—David Dunning and Justin Kruger—conducted a series of studies showing that unskillful or unknowledgeable people (1) often think they are quite skillful or knowledgeable, (2) can’t recognize genuine skill in others, (3) uniformly fail to recognize the extremity of their own inadequacy, and (4) can recognize and acknowledge their own previous unskillfulness only after highly effective training in the skill.”
I agree with Garner that lawyers often suck as writers (my term, not his). There are exceptions. Most appellate specialists I know are pretty handy with a pen (yes, Ben Shatz, I mean you). But I would say most legal documents, briefs, letters, agreements that come across my desk are worth about a “C.” Considering what these lawyer-writers are paid for “C”-quality writing, they’ve really earned an “F.”
One point Garner makes that rings true concerns collaborative writing. Almost any lawyer who works at a law firm, large or small, has to contend at some point with another lawyer who insists that certain edits be incorporated into the final product. Even solo practitioners are not immune, as clients can rightfully insist on edits. Garner makes this point about this kind of “forced” collaboration:
“Sometimes, I’m told, a brilliant legal writer will be asked to incorporate a sentence or two, unchanged, written by an inept one. It’s a bad feeling. How would the pianist Vladimir Horowitz feel about inserting a 30-second sound clip into one of his recordings? A sound clip played by a pianist who had hardly progressed beyond “Chopsticks”? It must feel awful.”
Lest you get confused, let me say here that (1) I don’t consider myself a “brilliant legal writer,” and (2) I don’t equate my skills (in anything) with Vladimir Horowitz. But Garner’s point is well-taken, even for a middling writer like me. My mentor about whom I often speak is actually a really great writer, so his input is almost always an improvement. But over the years I’ve been forced to incorporate some real dreck into briefs or letters.
If you’re a junior lawyer and the edits come from a senior partner, or your client has suggestions, you may be powerless to argue. Don’t sacrifice your future over an awkward and unnecessary edit.
But you can also learn from the forced-edit experience, because it affords an opportunity to evaluate why you write as you do, and why you don’t think an edit improves the product. One lawyer with whom I worked for several years was only a couple of years senior to me, but I really admired his legal reasoning skills. He also had a tremendous grasp of the case-law surrounding the issues with which we routinely dealt (automotive product liability). But his writing was vomit. It was not that he couldn’t write–it was that he didn’t know how or when to stop writing. He was verbose and insisted on including every possible quote, from every possible case, to illustrate his point, without any regard for the judge and clerks. Fortunately, while he was senior to me, he was not so senior that I was powerless to re-edit his edits, which I did without hesitation. The final product benefited from his big brain, but I trimmed off much of the unnecessary excess. Evaluating his edits forced me to confront the question how much is enough and how much is too much.