Keeping Up (One for the Fogeys)
I don’t like fads. The longer I practice, the less I care about the latest trends in brief-writing. The way I see it, solid writing never falls out of fashion, so why should I care about every newfangled idea? Don’t get me wrong—I don’t want to look like a fossil. I really do want to keep up with my readers’ expectations. I just don’t want to spend a lot of energy doing it—Twitter and LinkedIn be damned. I have better things to do. And I know I’m not alone.
We lawyers are always calling new tunes. Take typography. If you’re old enough to remember when law firms used electric typewriters, you’ll recall when the Courier font reigned. Laser printers rang in the era of Times New Roman, which became so prevalent that it got stale. Many of us turned to Garamond, which came highly recommended by people in the know. But for every font there is a season, and the “book” fonts are having theirs now.
Debates continue in other arenas too. We continue wrangling over where to cram bibliographic information: in the body or in footnotes? Meanwhile, “(cleaned up)” threatens to displace turgid quotations everywhere.
This is nerdy stuff. But ideas like these often stick, changing what my readers expect to see. I need to respect that. Still, if I had my druthers, I’d sleep through the debates and awaken only when a new convention is accepted. Surely there’s an easy way to be tipped off when proposals gain traction.
Palatable ways do indeed exist. But before I suggest anything, a foreword is necessary: I presume that, if you know who you’re writing for (not always possible), then you already have an idea about your reader’s preferences. You’ve read the rules, procedures, and opinions. Those resources convey expectations. Heed them.
Speaking more generally, how does a fogey like me stay abreast of accepted conventions without suffering through all the tedious debate? Here are a few suggestions:
Check out legal-writing blogs, and subscribe when possible. Blogs are meant to be pithy and fun to read. If a trend should be taken seriously, blogs will tell you. Here are three good ones:
Bryan Garner’s LawProse Lessons
Ross Guberman’s BriefCatch Blog
Wayne Schiess’s Legible Blog
Visit the U.S. Supreme Court’s free online docket from time to time (set a monthly or quarterly reminder) and read some of the petitions or briefs. If you notice expert writers doing something new, look into it. (The Texas appellate courts offer this feature as well—also for free.)
Many courts (like the Texas Supreme Court and Fifth Circuit) distribute new decisions by email. Subscribe to these services and read any decisions that catch your eye. They’ll provide a perennial yardstick for evaluating your own approach.
I don’t like fads, but I need to know where the prevailing winds are blowing. Thankfully, keeping up doesn’t have to be tedious or time-consuming.