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Like heartbreak and psoriasis, legalese seems ever with us. But Wall Street lawyer Bill Burton insists there is hope. He maintains that his colleagues can shake the pox of stilted, archaic, convoluted sentences. And he has what he thinks is just the antidote, be it an untested one: Give the most stylish legal scribes an award to boast about. With a Quixote-like determination, Burton rented the National Press Club earlier this week, recruited Paul Duke, the host of “Washington Week in Review,” to serve as host and paid for 12 big-time lawyers, 10 law students and their families to fly to Washington, D.C. On July 12, the Wall Street lawyer handed stylish obelisks to the winners of the first annual Burton Awards for legal writing. Competitiveness and vanity keep lawyers in line doing pro bono work, which has an award system of its own. Burton insists that lawyers will vainly try to best one another in writing, too. He faces little competition to lead the battle against inflated diction. All the other powers that be have given up. “No ABA president, to my knowledge, has made legal writing a front-and-center issue since Charles Beardsley in 1940,” says Bryan Garner, who runs Law Prose Inc., a Dallas company that offers legal-writing workshops. Eighteen months ago, Burton decided he would invite the managing partners of The American Lawyer top 100 firms and the nation’s law school deans to send in the best article written in their kingdoms during 1999. Lexis-Nexis anted up seed money, followed by the West Group and Pitney Bowes Management Services. Burton, who works on insurance regulatory issues at D’Amato & Lynch, says that he has marshaled $75,000 for this initial love-fest. To judge the writing, he recruited Harvard Law School professor Virginia Wise and California state Judge Ed Forstenzer. During June, they assessed the contributions for the basics of logic, clarity and flow of thought, and then for technique and style — artful use of metaphors and allusions. They chose to honor an analysis of the constitutionality of high school prayer that Valparaiso Law School student Penny Meyers opened with a fictional tale. Other winners featured personal narratives or pulp-fiction pieces. The winning contributions are all long, and some are slow. Burton concedes that these first submissions don’t all belong in the Hall of Fame. “Some law school articles had more style in terms of the way that the assignment was approached,” says Burton, “as opposed to the actual writing, the ability to express ideas with certain distinctions, which the partners and the counsel have mastered.” Burton wants to highlight lawyers who dedicate energy and time to writing. He rejected hunting for the best court pleadings: “Briefs are too issue-oriented; there’s too much research in them.” Then, too, court filings are prepared hastily, targeted at judges and owned, in effect, by the client. Sadly, a lawyer’s actual briefs and letters are where antiquated gobbledygook, such as “herein” and “undersigned,” prospers; pleadings are what feed the loathing, the errors, the waste. Alas, such reform pioneering has its detractors. “I think he’s making a terrible mistake,” says Ross Davies, editor-in-chief of The Green Bag, an independent “entertaining journal of law” featuring short, stylish articles by top-notch legal minds. “With all due respect to what The Green Bag is, law reviews are far less important to law, to clients, to the pursuit of justice, to professionalism, and so on, than filings are,” he insists. “How many practitioners read law review articles to begin with?” “Lawyers in many situations — certainly in court, but elsewhere, too — are storytellers,” says Richard Weisberg, author of “When Lawyers Write” and a law firm writing consultant. “They are people crafting narratives almost all the time, even sitting around the negotiating table or mediating.” Nonetheless, says Garner, of Law Prose, too many court filings lack — well, a beginning and end. “Lawyers have reduced them to vestigial organs,” he says. “The opener just says, ‘For all the following reasons,’ and the closer says, ‘For all foregoing reasons.’” Attorneys have more obvious incentives to write well than Burton’s laurel. Clear, direct writing is known to lead to improved persuasion — and thus to winning, efficiency, greater appreciation from clients, maybe even pleasure. LAW IS PUBLISHING “Large law firms,” says Karen Larsen, a nonlawyer legal editor at Portland, Ore.’s Miller Nash, “are in the publishing business, although they seem not to know it.” Lawyers do wish their colleagues would write better. Joseph Kimble, a professor at Thomas Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., notes that when he presented two pieces of prose to 1,462 judges and lawyers, 80 percent preferred the plain-language passage over the one written in lawyers’ argot. Unfortunately, “When they sit down to write, they forget that little lesson,” says Kimble. Burton sees a mindless productivity at fault. “There’s a lot of work to do; time is not a commodity that we have a lot of,” he says. Others blame cautious legal schooling, a clinging to overstatement, lawyers’ self-justifying need for mystification, and apathy. The fix? Miller Nash has Larsen, who calls herself Miss Grammar, to give lawyers’ 400-word sentences the hook before they hurt someone. When lawyers edit one another, they tend to focus on the legal points. The lawyers are touchy and often feel duty-bound to defend their work against all revision, something best overcome in one-on-one sessions, she wrote on the firm’s Web site. “Miss G. has learned not to put a dozen lawyers in a room and try to teach them anything,” Larsen wrote. “Their training and temperament lead them into wicked little competitions among themselves and with their would-be instructress. And they are not interested in what someone else has written — they are interested in their own writing.” The bright lights of a competition like Burton’s might curtail a second issue — lawyers’ inflated appreciation of their own work. Honoree Stanley Marcuss, of Bryan Cave, for instance, wasn’t swelling with pride as he prepared to accept his obelisk: “I think it’s a pretty good piece, but as I looked back on this after the award, I realized it could be much better.” If only everyone saw it that way.

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