Law and Conversation

August 17, 2011

To Tweet Or Not To Tweet? I’m TechnoLawyer’s Pick of the Week!

Wowie zowie–TechnoLawyer chose my cover story, “To Tweet Or Not To Tweet,” in the current issue (August 2011) of the Illinois Bar Journal, for BlawgWorld’s Pick Of The Week!

BlawgWorld publishes newsletters for lawyers. Its editors cull what they judge to be the best articles from legal publications all over the web for a handy weekly e-mail newsletter. (I don’t know how those editors work, but by even a conservative measure, that’s a LOT of articles to weed through every week. Lawyers deal in words, after all, and there’s a legal publication for practically every state, every local bar association, every national bar association, and every area and size of practice within those locales. There are also legal publications for gadgets and software that lawyers use. Then there are legal blogs, also known as blawgs–hundreds of those, at a minimum, many of which contain superb writing and insights.)

From all of those articles, the editors at BlawgWorld choose around a hundred each week to link to. From those top 100, they select ONE to excerpt and feature at the top of the newsletter. For the week of August 9, it’s mine! My head is still spinning.

The best things in life are free, and that includes BlawgWorld’s newsletters. You can subscribe by hitting the nice badge above that they sent me and following the instructions on the page it takes you to. Thanks so much to BlawgWorld’s great newsletter editors, Adriana Linares and Liz Kurtz, as well as to Neil Squillante, BlawgWorld’s publisher, and Kathryn Hughes, who writes the TechnoLawyer Blog, for choosing my article to feature. Thanks to all the lawyers I interviewed for the article and for the related , who provided terrific insights and commentary; I’ve included all of them, as well as many more, in my Illinois Lawyers Twitter list. Special thanks to Sonya Olds Som,  a lawyer and business development specialist at the legal search firm Major, Lindsay, and Africa, and Carol Ross, a career coach in Boulder, CO and fellow Northwestern alum, who gave me good insights into social media back in 2009 for my article, “Twitter and LinkedIn and Facebook, Oh My!” that appeared in the June 2009 issue of the IBJ. And thanks to my own wonderful editor at the Illinois State Bar Association, Mark Mathewson, for all of his work and support!

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February 18, 2011

Looking for a few good (practicing) lawyer writers

Harrisburg, PA lawyer, booklover, and freelance writer Harvey Freedenberg recently asked me via Twitter whether I could name any practicing lawyers who write about law in the same way that doctors like Richard Selzer, Lewis Thomas, Atul Gawande, and Jerome Groopman write about medicine.

I haven’t read Selzer or Thomas, but I have read Gawande and Groopman, both of whom are not only very fine writers but also full-time practicing physicians.  But why couldn’t I think of any comparable practicing lawyer writers?  Freedenberg suggested Jeffrey Toobin, who’s a very fine writer indeed, but noted that he’s not a currently practicing lawyer.

I can think of practicing lawyers who are very fine writers of fiction–often legal fiction–and practicing lawyers who are very fine writers of legal materials or who blog about issues related to the practice of law, and nonpracticing lawyers who write very good articles about the legal profession.  But I can’t think of any practicing lawyers who have written nonfiction books and articles for the general public about the practice of law comparable to what those practicing doctors have written about the practice of medicine.

Groopman and Gawande seem enormously admirable to me, not only for their unflinching criticism of some common current medical practices, but also for owning up to and honestly writing about mistakes they have personally made in the course of their medical practices.  I know that there are plenty of very thoughtful lawyers who are every bit as concerned with improving the legal profession and the practice of law as those doctors are about improving the medical profession and the practice of medicine, but it strikes me that most practicing lawyers direct their energies into bar association activities toward that end, not to writing books or articles about the practice of law for consumption by the general public.

Readers, why should that be?  Certainly, there are ethical issues such as privilege, which Freedenberg noted as an issue in our exchanges, that lawyers must take care with when they write about the practice of law.  But do those issues–which are also present for doctors–preclude lawyers from writing comparably to Groopman, Gawande, and their fellow doctor-writers?  Are there other factors at play?  Is there a niche that’s waiting to be filled?  Or are Freedenberg and I just overlooking some obvious good answers to his question?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

A while ago I wrote about The Paris Review’s making its interviews with authors available online.  Now, I’m intrigued by the literary magazine’s new advice column, also available online.  The delightful Ramona Koval, host of “The Book Show” on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Radio National, interviewed editor Lorin Stein, who writes the column, a few days ago.  Stein had some great advice for one reader who wondered which translation of Proust he should read, a question I’ve also been pondering since Scott Moncrieff’s classic translation gave me quite a bit of trouble a couple of years ago.  (Stein’s recommendation:  first read Lydia Davis’s new translation, then go to the most recently revised Moncrieff version.)  Perhaps Mr. Stein would give me some advice on another matter I’ve been struggling with:  which translation to read of Lady Murasaki’s “The Tale of Genji?” Waley, Seidensticker, or the gorgeously illustrated and annotated version by Royall Tyler?  Readers, if you have an opinion, I’d love your advice on that question, too.

January 31, 2011

Shakespeare, SpongeBob, and the law

Any article with “Shakespeare and SpongeBob” in the headline will get my attention.  And, indeed, I enjoyed this article from the New York Times on Staten Island Civil Court Judge Philip S. Straniere, who, with a little help from his literary friends, achieves his goal of writing decisions that the litigants can understand.  (The article’s original eyecatching headline has been changed to a less colorful one that omits the literary and cartoon references.)

Judge Straniere numbers not only the Bard and residents of Bikini Bottom among his friends, but also L. Frank Baum, Mario Puzo, Dr. Seuss, Oscar Hammerstein, Meredith Wilson, MAD magazine, and many others, all of which he’s cited in opinions he’s written. 

Lawyers are often criticized as a profession for being poor writers.  I don’t think that’s entirely fair—there are many lawyers who are very fine writers, and many fine writers who trained in the law—but it is true that many statutes, administrative regulations, court opinions, and legal articles, all of which are, admittedly, written by lawyers, rival Ambien as cures for insomnia.  I haven’t read any of Judge Straniere’s opinions, but I’ll bet they’re delightful.

Reading about the judge’s citation of nonlegal sources in order to bolster the understandability of his opinions to his audience–the litigants–made me think about another side of legal writing:  the briefs that lawyers submit to their audience, that is, judges.

Nonlawyers may not generally know that there are two types of opinions issued by many intermediate reviewing courts: precedential and nonprecedential.  They’re also referred to as “published” and “unpublished,” though that’s no longer generally true.  In Illinois, at least, all opinions, state and federal, are published in some fashion, if only on the Internet.  The two types are also referred to as “opinions,” which are published and precedential, and “orders,” which are “unpublished” and not precedential.  The number of states that continue to make this distinction is diminishing, Ottawa (IL) appellate lawyer Michael T. Reagan, who’s studied and testified on the issue, tells me.  The federal courts also continue to distinguish them.

In those jurisdictions that continue to make the distinction, it’s important because precedential opinions are legal authority and may be cited in briefs filed with the court.  Opinions that the authoring courts or judges designate as nonprecedential are often subject to court rules that actually prohibit their citation, except under certain narrowly defined circumstances.  In Illinois, the court rule applicable to those opinions is Supreme Court Rule 23.  In the federal courts, the applicable rule is Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32.1.  Federal district courts may adopt their own rules to some degree on whether and to what extent to allow the citation of nonprecedential opinions issued before January 1, 2007.

I’ve written a number of articles for the Illinois Bar Journal on court rules regarding nonprecedential opinions.  The most recent addressed the Illinois Supreme Court’s amendment of SCR 23, which was effective on the first of this year

Whenever I talk to lawyers who practice before courts of review, they wonder why it should be OK, and certainly not prohibited by any court rule, to cite the words of Shakespeare, SpongeBob, the Talmud, or the person they sat next to on the bus that morning, but not OK and, in fact, prohibited by court rule, to cite the words of the very court before which they’re appearing if those words happened to appear in an opinion designated nonprecedential. 

Though the question is rhetorical, it’s a good one.  The answers I’ve heard from proponents of maintaining the distinction include that nonprecedential opinions add nothing to the law (which others say isn’t so), that they’re not as well written or of as high quality as precedential opinions (an assertion that surprises me), and that citing them is never, or hardly ever, persuasive–which may be so, but then again, Shakespeare and SpongeBob probably won’t tip the scales, either.

Lawyers and judges, what do you think?  Can anyone provide other reasons for continuing to make the distinction between precedential and nonprecedential opinions?  Do the courts of other countries make this distinction?

September 9, 2010

Thursday thanks!

Filed under: CLE,Law,legal writing — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:01 am
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I recently came across Advocate’s Studio, the blog of Martha Sperry, a Boston lawyer who, like me, has a strong writing background and is also interested in music, technology, and a wide range of other subjects.  On her blog, Martha covers legal research and modern tech tools to assist the professional practice of law.  Unbeknownst to me, Martha praised my presentation for MentorCLE, “Persuasive Writing for Lawyers,” in a post last June.  Many thanks, Martha!

As I noted in a previous post, you can watch my presentation and any of MentorCLE’s other great offerings for free; if you’re a lawyer, you can pay a small fee and receive one hour of professionalism (ethics) credit for it in Illinois.  If you’re licensed in a different state, check out your state’s policies to see whether you can get CLE credit there.  As I mentioned last week,  I receive a small royalty every time someone views my course and pays for CLE credit.

A literary agent provides some adjectival suggestions for us writers to freshen up our prose at SlushPile Hell.  A LadyGagaLicious reference is guaranteed to make the judges of the Seventh Circuit (or any other court) sit up and take notice of your brief!   Hat tip:  Janet Reid via Twitter.

September 2, 2010

Thursday thanks!

Filed under: CLE,Law,lawyer writers,legal writing,trials — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:01 am
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I’d like to thank Illinois lawyer and superstar blawgger, Evan Schaeffer, for mentioning my recent article from the August 2010 Illinois Bar Journal, “Uncivil Action.”  I’ve interviewed Schaeffer on multiple occasions for articles on trial practice and legal technology.  He’s always responded to calls or e-mails promptly and provided spot-on commentary.  His inspiring, well written blogs have a wealth of information for lawyers on trial practice, writing, and technology, with occasional other fascinating tidbits thrown in.  And, in true superstar fashion, Evan sent me a very gracious e-mail when I started this blog, welcoming me to the blogosphere!

Evan was also kind enough to review my presentation for MentorCLE.com, “Persuasive Writing for Lawyers,” and gave it a thumbs up.  You can watch my presentation and any of MentorCLE’s other great offerings for free; if you’re a lawyer, you can pay a (rock bottom) $19.95 and receive one hour of professionalism (ethics) credit for it in Illinois.  If you’re licensed in a different state, check out your state’s policies to see whether you can get CLE credit there.  FULL DISCLOSURE:  I receive a small royalty every time someone views my course and pays for CLE credit.

Here’s a fun site for others who love good writing:  The Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks.  Hat tip:  writer Sandra Boncek Hume.  On the other end of the punctuation spectrum, Jane Austen apparently didn’t DO punctuation in her mss., says Jack Malvern in The Australian.  Hat tip:  Jane Austen Today.

Have I missed you?  I have some more posts in the works thanking others, one by one, who have linked to this blog and referenced my work.  If you’ve linked to this site and/or included it on your own blogroll, or otherwise referenced my work, please let me know.

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