Courtly Language

Dallas lawyer Bryan Garner cuts through the muck of legal prose

In a perfect world, where youthful fantasies grow into reality, 42-year-old Bryan A. Garner would right now be making his way to the next stop on the PGA tour instead of standing in front of a stuffy room filled with corporate attorneys. The Dallas lawyer/author would be high on the list of pro golf money winners, not explaining the importance of proper syntax and precise word usage to men handsomely paid to write legal briefs traditionally awash in sleep-inducing mumbo jumbo.

In his boyhood days in the Texas Panhandle he was an athletic prodigy, winning in the neighborhood of 50 junior golf tournaments before age 17. At one point he won four 18-hole tournaments in as many days and was being tutored by legendary Austin instructor Harvey Penick. And then came the unexplained stress fractures in his feet. The sweet swing and radar-like putting stroke went south, taking with it his dreams of sports glory.

When that bubble burst, Garner went directly to Plan B, setting a course that would ultimately earn him the recognition he now enjoys as one of the world's pre-eminent English language lexicographers. Today his body of work includes 14 published reference and instructional books, including the highly praised Dictionary of Modern American Usage. New York Times columnist William Safire, a self-proclaimed language stickler, often phones Garner for consultation. A San Francisco legal journal has dubbed him the "E.B. White of legal prose," and recently Harper's Magazine contributing editor David Foster Wallace gushed praise, calling Garner a genius. Wrote Wallace, "Garner structures his judgments very carefully to avoid the elitism and anality of traditional SNOOTitude."

Attorney and lexicographer Bryan A. Garner wants to make legal writing less dull. See: "Herculean task."
Peter Calvin
Attorney and lexicographer Bryan A. Garner wants to make legal writing less dull. See: "Herculean task."

Translation: For all his academic aplomb, word skills that enabled him as a Phi Beta Kappa undergraduate to publish essays on the works of Shakespeare in the same highbrow literary journals written by his University of Texas professors, Garner is a reader-friendly kind of writer. Forget for a minute that he can go on for hours about Latin plurals and the use and misuse of the em dash, and you'll find yourself thinking about inviting him out for a beer or to hit a bucket of balls.

Sitting in his book-lined North Dallas office, he laughs at the suggestion that any journalist who visits him does so warily, intimidated by the anticipation that whatever is written will ultimately be madly red-penciled by his subject. "I make mistakes with the language," he admits. "We all do."

It is his life's mission, however, to help his fellow lawyers and writers reduce them.

His affection for the language, he recalls, first bloomed on a ski vacation in New Mexico when he was 16. "On that trip," he says, "I discovered Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English and began reading. I didn't even want to leave the cabin to ski." Soon, he was seeking out books on vocabulary, semantics and linguistics, writing newly discovered words and their definitions into spiral notebooks. "Some of what I was reading," he admits, "was way over my head, but I found it all fascinating." Soon, while his Canyon High buddies were reading paperback page-turners, Garner was poring over dictionaries. The obsession with words and phrases remained as he contemplated the course of study he would pursue in college. "I began to develop a rather hazy plan to somehow combine an English major with a law degree," he recalls.

He wishes he'd come to that decision earlier. While still living his teen dream of pro golf acclaim, his grandfather, Meade F. Griffin, for 20 years a Texas Supreme Court justice, offered to will him his entire law library if only he would agree to attend law school. "I said thanks, but no thanks," Garner says, "and he donated his books to Baylor University."

Ultimately, however, he did enroll in UT's law school. "It occurred to me," he says, "that it was an ideal way to combine my interests. The law, at its most basic, is a profession of words, one in which persuasive speaking and writing are most effective."

Still, he was not completely convinced that a professional life spent litigating in courtrooms was for him. Briefly after earning an undergraduate degree in English he considered working toward a doctorate. The idea was quickly dismissed when his Thailand-born future wife, Pan, made it clear she had no interest in marrying an English professor. And so, off to law school he went. In the first week he began his first book-length writing project. He passed the bar and completed A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage almost simultaneously.

"After graduation, I spent a year clerking for Fifth Circuit Court Judge Thomas Reavley and sending out letters to publishing houses. Twenty-three of the 25 he corresponded with sent polite rejections. "Their message was that if a dictionary like that was really a good idea, someone would already have done it," he says. Finally, however, Little, Brown and Oxford University Press expressed interest.

Garner chose to sign a contract with Oxford, and the book was published to response seldom afforded a dictionary. It was, law journal reviewers agreed, not only "useful" and "thoughtfully compiled" but also "entertaining." Soon new doors began to swing open. Editors at Oxford were calling for additional works. The UT law school offered a teaching position.

"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.

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