Capital letters do not make words more interesting

… nor do they make the writer more interesting.

Over The Years, It’s Become Painfully Clear To Me That Lawyers Like Their Capital Letters. It’s Almost Like They JUST CAN’T HELP THEMSELVES.

Maybe they put themselves in the shoes of the Founding Fathers (founding fathers?), whose Declaration of Independence is a hallmark of random capitalization. (And why is that? Read what this writer Says About That. And Slate covers the topic of capitalization and the Tea Party here.)

Nothing grabs the eye in a declaration of independence like random capitalization.

Nothing grabs the eye in a declaration of independence like random capitalization.

What got me thinking about this topic was Susie Salmon’s January column in Arizona Attorney Magazine. In it, she examines when you need to capitalize, and when you simply Should Not.

At the magazine, we routinely receive People-item press releases that show a trigger finger for capitalization. For example, if your law firm has a practice group called the Environmental Remediation and Asbestos Prevention Practice Group, or a department called the White-Collar Crime and Cybersecurity Department, by all means, have at it with the capitals; that’s the name of the group or department, after all.

But if “Robert ‘Bob’ Scharansky practices in all areas of Civil Litigation, with an emphasis on Environmental Remediation and Asbestos Prevention,” … No. Just no.

And Bob’s firm is not a Full-Service Firm committed to the Best Outcome for the Client.

Nor does Bob practice in Bankruptcy, or Aviation Law, or Employment Law, or even in the Federal Courts. He does not Focus his Practice in Immigration and Criminal Law. No No No. Those are not real things, or at least not things that demand a proper noun.

Embrace the little things in life. And begin with your typing choices. We all would Appreciate It.

capital letters My Magnificence Cannot Be Contained In Mere Lowercase Letters-page0001

I hope this is now Clear to Everyone.

Former Judge Mark Painter takes legal writing seriously (and you'd be advised to do the same, Counselor!).

Former Judge Mark Painter takes legal writing seriously (and you’d be advised to do the same, Counselor!).

In honor of Change of Venue Friday, how would you like to be beat about the head for your legal writing failures?

I didn’t think so. Writing is hard, and unnecessarily harsh criticism (and a beating) does not make the task any easier.

But a recent story out of Ohio tells me that our approach to better legal writing—cajoling and education, plus a little humor—may be the best course. To see what I mean, read Susie Salmon’s terrific recent column here.

Meanwhile, a former Ohio judge named Mark Painter penned his own legal-writing column in a bar magazine. (Sound familiar?) But things took a turn for the worse. Let me have a Cincinnati paper describe it:

“Former Judge Mark Painter never has been at a loss for words, especially when it comes to singling out lousy writing by his fellow lawyers.”

“But for the first time in years, his criticism has been silenced. Sort of.”

“The Cincinnati Bar Association recently refused to print Painter’s column on legal writing in its monthly magazine, prompting Painter to quit the association and take out a big ad in The Enquirer on Wednesday complaining about the decision. The problem, the association’s leadership told Painter, was that his critiques of local judges sometimes were not all that collegial.”

“In other words, he’s too mean.”

“Painter, who enjoys a good fight almost as much as good writing, said the real problem is censorship and wasted no time Wednesday making his case. He said his columns in the CBA Report were intended to educate, not embarrass, and the bar association went overboard by censoring him.”

“‘You’ve got a bureaucratic mindset, a don’t-rock-the-boat mindset,’ Painter said of the bar association. ‘It’s ridiculous. Mine is an opinion column. It’s amazing how thin-skinned people are.’”

“Officials at the bar association, the region’s largest organization for lawyers, declined comment on their decision, other than to say they appreciate Painter’s contributions over the years and regret his decision to drop his membership.”

You could—and really should—read the whole story here. And thank you to Brad Carr for alerting me to a story about mean judges and the sentences they loathe!

When does a writing-teacher's stern reproof become mean?

When does a writing-teacher’s stern reproof become mean?

And, so you can get the whole picture, why don’t you read the judge’s column here.

I have to admit I’m conflicted about this. Sure, columnists should have a tone that is unique to them. But is a writing column truly an opinion column? Well, it definitely should be opinionated. But if the opinion of the author is that other people are morons, is that an opinion we’d publish?

But I honestly have a hard time thinking of a column that could grate so badly that I would decline to publish. Compelling (even if stern) analysis might put asses in the seats. And engagement is (ideally) part if every publication’s strategy.

Just seeing a bar association irked that a writer was “too mean” is worth the price of admission, either way!

But maybe saying it was "mean" is malarkey. After all, there's no crying in baseball or legal writing. Time to put on your big-writer pantaloons.

But maybe saying it was “mean” is malarkey. After all, there’s no crying in baseball … or legal writing. Time to put on your big-writer pantaloons.

However you feel, try to have a great—and grammatically correct—weekend. And try not to be overly judgmental of others.

Susie Salmon, UA Law School

Susie Salmon, UA Law School

Color me nostalgic, but this week I’m offering a few great pieces of content from the departing issue of Arizona Attorney Magazine—in case you missed it.

Today. I point you to our new-ish column on legal writing. Wisely enough, that column is written by an expert in the subject, a legal writing professor at the UA Law School, Susie Salmon.

I have been impressed by Susie’s work from the first time I spotted it. Concise, witty, salted with just enough pop-culture and other references to keep us coming back for more.

This was not the legal writing approach I got in law school, I can tell you that.

(Ironically, Susie and I attended the same law school. I have never asked her about her experience at UC-Hastings as a writing student. Perhaps it was a stellar one; someone had to get the good section.)

Susie’s column in the current issue is spot-on as usual. She takes something you think you can live without knowing—in the June issue it’s the comma spliceand demonstrates that no, no you cannot.

Like all great writing teachers (and writers), Susie shows; she does not just tell.

And sometimes, she’ll tell off—but with courtesy.

When I received her April column, for example, I laughed out loud. For there, right in her lede (don’t know what that is? She explains it here), Susie gently pointed out a point of disagreement between us. You may chuckle (or chortle, if you’re legal-word pundit Bryan Garner), but debates over the Oxford comma are serious business.

Here is how she handled it. (And a sample of her column lede is below.)

Commas may look innocent, but can they be unnecessary? (Sorry, Oxford.)

Commas may look innocent, but can they be unnecessary? (Sorry, Oxford.)

Well, unlike the musings of my own law school professor, I take to heart Susie’s suggestions. And so I am pleased to tell you that since reading her gentle remonstrance, I have (deep breath) … taken a less hardline view that the Oxford comma is a ridiculous relic of a stodgy past.

Yes, I still strive to follow the AP Stylebook, our particular bible. And yes, my skin does break out in a rash when I see that damned O.C. wheel around the corner of a paragraph, grinning the power-drunk grin of a self-satisfied colonial monoglot.

But now, at least, I do not obliterate it with relish, striking it out with a violent Sharpie slash. Instead, I read the sentence multiple times, slowly, over Port, as I imagine baffled O.C. lovers do, considering every possible way a comma’s omission may lead to confusion or a monarchy’s collapse. And then, every once in a while, I allow the comma to remain.

See. I can learn.

Well, so can you. So enjoy Susie’s column now and in the future. But go easy on adding the commas, would you?