When people ask what I do for a living, I easily answer, “I’m an attorney.” But after having had the pleasure of attending Bryan Garner’s writing seminar recently in Seattle, I’m more apt to answer, “I’m a writer.”
Bryan Garner is editor of Black’s Law Dictionary and author of several books and treatises on legal style, including A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, The Elements of Legal Style, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, The Winning Brief, The Winning Oral Argument, and most recently, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, cowritten with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Garner’s command of the English language, his formal legal training, and his black book thick with names such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Chief Justice John Roberts qualify him to undertake his self-imposed mission of “changing the way lawyers communicate.” (I would end that mission statement by adding “for the better.”)
The tools Garner details in his books (such as the “Deep Issue” Garner pioneers) will, if adopted, no doubt improve your writing skills. Yet what moves me more to improve my writing is Garner’s charge that lawyers, first and foremost, consider themselves as professional writers.
Garner encourages attorneys to read The New Yorker and The Economist. (I would add to that list The New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, Slate.com, and contemporary fiction by authors such as Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Lorrie Moore.) With his tongue firmly in his cheek, Garner says that these publications should never be read for fun, but rather with an eye for style, polish, and compelling prose.
In practice, and having worked at the California Supreme Court and with a federal judge, I’ve seen that the bar for writing standards is terribly low. Attorneys simply don’t consider themselves professional writers, even though the industry is stirred mainly by the written word. The younger and newer attorneys responsible for shaping our profession’s future landscape can change this: new attorneys can elevate the profession by taking a concerted effort to improve their writing. And to do that, we must treat ourselves not just as attorneys, but as writers.