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"I was warned early on," he says, "that if I was to be taken seriously in the field I'd chosen, teaching legal writing at a law school was a mistake. Several of my professors strongly suggested that if I wished to teach, it should be to practicing lawyers."
The advice stayed with him, even as he spent a couple of years as an associate in the Dallas firm of Carrington & Coleman. By 1990 he'd reached the decision to form his own company, LawProse Inc., and begin conducting language seminars for lawyers throughout the United States. By the mid-'90s he was doing more than 130 one-day instructional sessions annually. From New York to Sacramento, Detroit to Phoenix, he gained the reputation as the man who could help lift wearisome Old World legal writing into modern-day English.
"Word for word," he says, "lawyers are the most highly paid professional writers in the world. But the literary tradition in the profession is probably the worst. Too many are content to fall back on the writing style that was in vogue decades ago." The more boring and stilted, the more lawyer-like.
"As with any other form of prose," he says, "legal writing should be accessible to the masses. It shouldn't be lethal reading."
Dallas appellate attorney Scott Stolley of Thompson & Knight is one of many converts. Among those in attendance at an early-day LawProse seminar, he was so taken by Garner's suggestions that he approached him about becoming a personal tutor. "I gave him a copy of a brief I had written on a case I had pending before the Texas Supreme Court," Stolley recalls, "and he returned it to me with more red and blue ink notations than I'd ever seen. But his suggestions all made great sense.
"Since that day, I haven't written a brief without consulting him or his books. He's helped improve my writing tremendously."
Speak with those who have attended his workshops and you soon feel you're gathering testimonials for a LawProse brochure.
"He's a walking legal dictionary with a charming wit," says Dawn Ryan Budner, partner at the firm of Bell, Nunnally & Martin. In charge of the firm's in-house training program, she recently convinced her fellow attorneys to attend one of Garner's workshops. "Everyone came away from it energized and inspired to think rather than accept a writing style that has been handed down for generations in the law."
Today, Garner has cut back to 115-120 seminars per year to make more time for his writing, his duties as adjunct professor of law at Southern Methodist University, Pan and daughters, Caroline and Alexandra.
And he continues to expand his literary efforts into the mainstream, currently at work on a chapter on grammar and usage for the new edition of the University of Chicago Press' Manual of Style. Still, he admits, his primary battlefield is the legal profession, and the fight continues.
In a recent front-page article, The New York Times explored the furor currently raging within the legal community over whether to follow the arcane practice of including reference numbers and citations in the body of briefs and opinions or adopt the modern academic practice of placing them in footnotes--a change that Garner champions. "We still have these mind-numbing conventions that keep us from writing coherently, and these constant hiccups in midsentence are a good example," he says.
Though still divided on the issue, judges and lawyers concede one thing: Ultimately many will likely follow whatever lead is provided by Garner, now recognized as the authority on such matters--the man who, in addition to his other myriad endeavors, now serves as editor in chief of the newly revised Black's Law Dictionary, the profession's Holy Bible.
"What he has done," says Stolley, "is carve out a unique niche for himself, challenging many of the worn-out conventions of legal writing. And being the target of controversy doesn't bother him in the least."
So long, of course, as those criticizing him do so in a grammatically correct manner.