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Review of Bryan A. Garner’s LawProse Seminars – by Roger Traversa

by Carolyn Elefant on May 24, 2011 · 4 comments

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Editor’s Note: For legal and appellate writers, Bryan Garner’s seminars are renowned. Not only is Garner respected by, and popular with lawyers, but he apparently commands enough respect by the Supreme Court Justices that they willingly shared with Garner their writing secrets. But how do Garner’s writing seminars stack up? I’ve seen them advertised before and while at $395 (half-day) to $595 (full-day), they cost more than your average CLE, the prices didn’t induce sticker shock either. Still, $400 is a lot to pay if you don’t know what you’re getting, which is why I put out the call for a review of Bryan Garner’s seminar and Roger Traversa of Arjont Group obliged. His review follows.

I recently attended two very informative seminars presented by Bryan A. Garner which are conducted through his company LawProse, Inc. You may be familiar with the names. First, Bryan is the chief editor of Black’s Law Dictionary for the past three editions. Then there are the numerous books he has authored or co-authored. (http://lawprose.org/bryan_garner/books.php) He is also a practicing attorney and consults on appeals, particularly writing, revising, and editing briefs. But back to the seminars Bryan presents on topics for lawyers based on his books and proprietary manuals. More specifically Bryan presents on improving the quality of lawyers’ writing and argumentation. A strong premise resonates throughout his seminars: the state of legal writing, as demonstrated by the overwhelming majority of lawyers, stinks. That’s not just his opinion; he shows snippets of numerous interviews he’s conducted. These include interviews with preeminent lawyers in private practice, federal judges, and even justices presently sitting on the Supreme Court of the United States. Bryan’s writing and seminars, his life’s work, seems to be a singular crusade to improve the quality of legal writing. The clear opinion shown in the interview snippets is that legal writing is severely deficient. And because the writing is deficient we lawyers are not best serving our clients’ interests.

Understand that writing a review of Bryan’s presentation is a double-edge sword. On the one I get to give my opinion. On the other, he may read and edit this review. Prior to these seminars I would avoid seeing edits of my work. But after the seminars I better understand that seeing thoughtful editing is another opportunity to improve my writing.

I attended two seminars on the same day. The morning seminar was Advanced Legal Writing and Editing. Bryan conducts this seminar from a proprietary manual of the same name. The manual is thoughtfully laid out with a logical and clear progression. It provides cogent takeaways and samples of good writing of various types.

After a brief introduction, the first segment focused on who and what the good writer should be reading. Bryan and his materials recommend a large number of specific references to books, general references to authors, and even publications to which we should subscribe. Bryan strongly makes the point that a good writer must be an avid reader. And that we should be avid readers of non-legal materials; because, as was pointed out, most legal writing stinks. He even proposes that we commit one weekend a month to reading a book on writing, editing, or argumentation developing a writer’s book-shelve in the process.

The seminar progressed along a logical arc. Each topic built upon the previous topic and lead to the goal of improving the quality of our writing and editing. Bryan made the presentation more interesting by soliciting participation through readings, asking for examples, and even had a few quizzes. One of the quizzes in the manual had what appeared to be ten simple two-choice edits. We made the edits and then all stood up, as Bryan discussed the answers we would each sit down when we had discovered two of our answers were wrong. In a class of about 50 people, no one had every answer correct. Bryan salved our egos somewhat by telling us that out of the hundreds of seminars he’s presented there is never more than a couple of people standing at the end.

The afternoon seminar, Making Your Case, is based on the book of the same name which Bryan co-authored with Justice Antonin Scalia. A copy of the book was provided to each attendee. I had bought the book shortly after it was published in 2008, and my copy is well worn and marked up. The seminar was presented as hitting the high points of the book, which it did. Bryan progressed through the book with attention to making the points applicable not only to appellate work but to trial lawyers appearing before a local magistrate.

A key point made in both seminars is to create a syllogism as your issue statement. Law schools teach new lawyers to create a single sentence beginning with the word whether and ending with a question mark. Instead, a syllogism is the presentation of a rule-based major premise, a factual minor premise, and an inference based on the major and minor premise. I’ll leave the full description of how a syllogism works to Bryan’s material.

Listening to Bryan was a pleasure. While he claimed to be suffering from a cold little evidence was presented except for the occasional cough. He is a well-rehearsed presenter and keeps the listener interested. The seminars do not just consist of him droning on and on. His tone and vocal range is well-adapted to the material. Bryan is very personable and speaks directly to his audience, without patronizing. At times, it does seem like he could give the seminars in his sleep, he re-used a couple of jokes in both the morning and afternoon seminars. The room at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia was well suited to the seminar. It was large and airy. The sound and video systems were well set up so that each attendee could see and hear quite well.

I liked the seminars. I went into the day somewhat skeptically. I have followed Bryan on twitter for a while and find his tweets violate some of the rules of twitterquette. He does a lot of self-promoting, uses two-dollar words where more simple words will do, and retweets others’ praise of his work. Nevertheless, these sins can be forgiven, except for the retweeting. Let other people tweet your praise, don’t do it yourself. But, Bryan makes a living from seminars and it’s in the interest his employees and himself to capitalize on the capacity of the room.

The cost of Bryan Garner’s LawProse seminars range in price from $395 for a half day seminar to $595 for a full day like the one I attended. That works out to a range of $95 to $120 per CLE credit hour. The price is lower than many CLE credit hours I have taken but the content was so much more valuable. But for most of us the time spent away from the office is more valuable than the out-of-pocket cost of any seminar. Here the trade-off was well worth it.

If you have the chance, I highly recommend attending Bryan A. Garner’s LawProse seminars. It is time well spent.

  • Carolyn

    I took the Advanced Legal Writing seminar many years ago when I was an associate, and his basic lessons have stuck with me.  I can’t say that I’m vastly improved as a legal writer because of one seminar, but I do think back to his teachings when I’m writing, and I’m a believer in what he preaches.   However, as an associate, any attempt to implement his style was shot down by the partners reviewing my work (even though the silly folks had paid for me to learn it).  Oh well, wasn’t my money and I still have the course material to refer to.  :)

  • CarolynH

    ooh, and I’m Carolyn H, not Carolyn Elefant.  :)

  • Tamar Cerafici

    I participated in Bryan’s seminar 15 years ago, and it doesn’t look like it’s changed much. Why mess with a good thing? Bryan’s premise still rings true: standard legal writing stinks. Before I was awarded my MA in English, my advising professors threatened to deny my degree unless I swore a blood oath not to write like an attorney. Bryan’s seminars are helpful for those who did not make such commitments.

  • Tamar C.

    PS: to Carolyn H: keep writing the way Bryan taught you. Your clients will love it because they can actually understand what you’re saying. Judges will love it because their clerks will understand what you’re saying. At some point in time, your partners will retire and you will still be practicing somewhere, with clients and judges who love you. You will also be able to hold your head high, knowing that you are not perpetuating a sad Victorian style that is badly out of date. As long as your work doesn’t read like a Twitter feed, your partners should be happy you’re producing at all.

    One partner accused me of sounding like Hemingway in my writing. I took it as a complement because I naturally assumed he thought I wrote like the Sun Also Rises Hemingway, and not the Garden of Eden Hemingway.

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