Good lawyers need training to be good communicators

Victoria Law Foundation Executive Director Joh Kirby on the importance of training law students to be good legal writers and communicators.

Go to Courtoons website This week the New Yorker on their blog published an article on Bryan Garner highlighting his work with US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Bryan Garner is a world renowned expert on legal writing, grammar and style and a collector of antiquarian law books. He has been published widely and is the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern English Usage published by Oxford University Press, both leading American texts in the area. His publications and achievements are so extensive it is impossible to list them all here. Needless to say, he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to legal writing.

In the most recent edition of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing Mr Garner published interviews with all the US Supreme Court Justices on their views on legal writing and advocacy. It is worth reading for the insight that it provides into the thinking of US Supreme Court justices and also to reflect on how their views might compare with those in Australia.

I recently heard Mr Garner speak in Washington DC as part of the plain language in law conference, Clarity2012. The part of his speech that resonated with me the most was how being a good legal writer takes time, just like being a professional sports star. It is a learnt skill and one that, unfortunately, in my view we aren’t teaching to our law students. This is a disservice to them as well as the profession.

While it is a given that being a good lawyer requires excellent legal skills, I would argue that a good lawyer must also be a good communicator. You need to have the ability to ensure that a client, whether a CEO of a large corporation or a newly arrived person to Australia with limited English, understands the advice being given and can act on it. The United States has courses in legal writing, including one of the most well-known, run by Garner’s colleague in the redrafting of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Joseph Kimble at Thomas Cooley Law School.

Isn’t it about time that we acknowledged the skill and training needed to be a good legal writer, and gave our law students the skills to excel in this area?

Mr Garner is in Melbourne this week talking at the Federal Court on legal writing and at University of Melbourne on collecting antiquarian law books.

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4 thoughts on “Good lawyers need training to be good communicators

    • Thanks Nick. I am sure that some people would find this kind of training helpful. But good communication is about more than words. It’s about understanding the needs of your audience and tailoring your entire approach – language, style, format, design etc – to meet these needs. We think lawyers need to understand and apply the principles of plain language from the outset, rather than rely on a check box exercise.

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