Garner’s presentation — “Humorous Examples of Legal Writing” — had pretty much everyone in the room laughing out loud (including Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Christopher Dietzen, who was sitting next to me). Garner’s reference to a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision, where the court concluded that “Equity will not relieve him who could have relieved himself,” is just one example. A lawyer signing off his legal brief with the phrase “Rectfully submitted” was another.
But amid all the laughter, the prolific writer made some serious points as well. One thing he said that I had not thought about before was that lawyers are probably the highest paid writers around. They certainly earn more for their writing than professional writers like those who work for such prominent publications as The New Yorker and The Economist. (And — I’m guessing here — more than the average journalist working for, say, a smaller, local legal pub.) I guess if you consider the fact that lawyers get paid hundreds of dollars for each hour they spend working on a 50-page brief, Garner is right. He said that people who make that much money for their writing should learn to do it right. Good point.
To write right, Garner said, lawyers should take a cue from the famous children’s author, Dr. Seuss, who said: “The only purpose of the first sentence is to get the reader to read the second sentence. The only purpose of the first paragraph is to get the reader to read the second paragraph. The only purpose of the first page is to get the reader to turn the page.”
Unfortunately lawyers don’t do that, Garner said, and instead fill the first part of their briefs (and the last part for that matter) with meaningless filler. You don’t want to put something substantive on page one, he said sarcastically, adding “that might startle the judge.”
On a more serious note, Garner advised getting to the heart of your argument right away. “Don’t bury the lede!” he stressed.
I interviewed Garner last month as a sort of “preview” to his convention appearance. I wrote then that I expected attendees would be in for a treat. I was right — he did not disappoint.