My friend Ron enjoys many aspects of our friendship. From time to time, we have our own book club. Unlike many others, we don’t simply meet to discuss a book we’d finished reading independently. As this picture reflects, we actually sit and read it together, discussing it as we go along.
The book we were reading here is Reflections on Judging by Richard A. Posner. Peculiarly well-qualified to pen such a book, Posner was, for 36 years (1981-2017), a highly regarded appellate judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Before his judicial appointment, he was a popular professor at the University of Chicago Law School. Many consider him the most influential judge of the late 20th and early 21st centuries not to have sat on the Supreme Court.
Having been an appellate lawyer for many years, I maintain an interest in all things appellate, and, in particular, what appellate judges have to say about appellate practice, in particular, and the law more generally. By osmosis over the years, Ron has gravitated toward my job interests, often serving as a both colleague and muse on days when I worked from home.
This book was particularly appropriate for Ron and me to read for an additional reason—both Judge Posner and I have long been ailurophiles, i.e., cat lovers. Posner and his Maine Coon, Pixie, have a long-lasting relationship similar to Ron’s and mine. Posner has said on more than one occasion that Pixie is his writing muse.
Hence, Ron and I, as two ailurophiles, thought it would be fun to see what a fellow ailurophile had to say. And it was fun, indeed. Posner discussed judicial philosophy (Posner and Pixie are legal realists while Ron and I are formalists) and methods of interpretation, as well as a slew of perceived problems with both judges and advocates. But we chose to focus on Posner’s discussion of legal writing.
If you’re like most people who aren’t in the law biz, you probably consider the term “good legal writing” an oxymoron. With good reason. So many lawyers—judges, too—see it as their mission to justify their high fees by producing legal documents that are impenetrable. So much of it, regardless of the area of law or purpose of the document, is repetitive, monotonous, and verbose. The driving principle seems to be “why say in 10 words what I can say in 150? People won’t think I’m smart unless I fill the page with archaisms, Latinisms, sentences consisting of two subordinate clauses each, and as much hyperbole and passive voice as I can possibly squeeze in.” Ron, in particular, is put off by passive-voice constructions—so much so that, when we finished our reading one evening, he told me, “Hey Bob, the chicken-based food I was given by you last night was strongly preferred by me over Tuesday night’s pork.” What a joker!
Ron especially liked Posner’s demonstration of the brevity-is-the-soul-of-wit philosophy. Posner took a 3350-word judicial opinion and rewrote it so it said the same thing, much more clearly, in 602 words.
We both agreed that this segment of the book is best summed up by the KISS principle—“keep it simple, stupid.”