George F. Will, Q.C.

Q.C. stands for Queen’s Counsel.  For reasons I explain in an earlier post entitled “Diane Rehm, Q.C.,” the Q.C. designation is my way of saying that I greatly admire the manner and the excellence with which a person uses language and clarity of thought to express, often forcefully but always civilly, ideas, arguments and opinions. In my book, George Will is among the very best of the “Queen’s Counsels.”

One way for lawyers (or any one else) to improve their writing is to read on a regular basis something, anything really, that George Will has written.  You can find one of Will’s Washington Post op ed pieces here . I chose it because it is about two recent Supreme Court rulings, John McCain’s reaction to one of them, and about the Presidential campaign.

I happen to enjoy Will’s style.  Reading something he’s written is a pleasurable experience for me even if I don’t agree with him. One of the reasons I enjoy his columns is because I can always understand what he’s written.  I don’t have to guess.  I don’t have read and re-read just to get to first base.  The process of going from words to meaning is smooth, frictionless.  I can spend my time thinking about his ideas and arguments instead of trying to cope with the sound of grinding gears and the smell of something that has overheated. There is a certain joy in the cadence of his writing.

The way George Will writes reminds me of something Tony Fitzgerald once told a group of new associates.  Tony Fitzgerald is a great lawyer, a lawyer’s lawyer.  A graduate of Yale College and the Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar at Columbia Law School, Fitzgerald is a partner in the litigation department of Carmody & Torrance.  About writing a brief he said, “If you don’t have the judge’s attention by the end of the first page, you’ve lost him.”  Keeping that advice in mind focuses one’s attention.  No pleasantries.  No warm-ups.  Get to the point.  What’s the issue? Why should the judge decide in your favor? Make the judge want to read on. Make sense. Don’t use filler.  Make every word count. 

Writing a column is very different from writing a brief.  A columnist has greater freedom and independence than an advocate does in the context of a lawsuit.  But the columnist and the trial lawyer have this in common:  skillful use of language, clarity and economy of expression matter every bit a much as substance. To be successful both the columnist and brief writer must make their ideas easily accessible to the reader.  

George Will is not a lawyer.  He could, I think, have been a great lawyer but the price for him would have been too high, loss of independence.  My guess is that Will is at his best and that he feels most comfortable when he speaks for himself.  It’s not entirely clear to me that he could do otherwise.

Maybe for today, in this tiny, insignificant space Will has the best of both worlds: here he is thought of as both columnist and Queen’s Counsel, George Will, Q.C.

 

 

Diane Rehm, Q.C.

There are a number of basic skills a lawyer ought to have and continue to develop in order to carry out her professional responsibilities and to achieve excellence.  One of those skills is asking questions, the rights ones in the right ways at the right times.  It is an art that combines, among other things, mindfulness, respect and perhaps most importantly the closely related discipline of listening and taking into account both what is said and what is not said.

With the exception of examining and cross examining witnesses, asking questions is an aspect of lawyering that is, in my experience, not taught and, in practice, is often taken for granted, which can lead to lost opportunities to understand the real problem or issue and to counsel clients effectively and efficiently.  Fortunately, there are examples one can learn from.  Two come immediately to mind.  One is readily available.  The other requires a trip to England.

At a course on trial practice given at Oxford University sponsored by the ABA litigation section and the Inns of Court, I saw King’s Counsel and Queen’s Counsel at work.   King’s Counsel (K.C.) or Queen’s Counsel (Q.C.) are recognized as excellent trial lawyers.  To become a King’s Counsel or Queen’s Counsel is an honor and an extraordinary accomplishment signifying the highest level of skill.  One of those skills is cross examination, asking questions of witnesses called by one’s opponent or who have been recognized by the court as hostile.  The American sterotype of cross examination often involves aggressive and sarcastic questioning.  The British tradition as I saw it was entirely different.  Each Q.C. I saw cross examine a witness was unfailingly polite, even gracious.  But their questions were simple, clear, direct and always, always telling.  The overall effect was stunning.  The credibility of the witness, or lack of credibility as the case may be, was laid bare because there were no distractions.  The focus was not on the lawyer.  All attention was focused on the cumulative effect of clear, pointed and carefully constructed questions and the witness’s answers.  I found it breathtaking.  It had never occurred to me that being fair and polite while conducting a cross examination could be so devastating and effective.  Of course there was more to it than just being polite.  The questions were the product of careful thought and meticulous preparation.

A more readily available example of excellence in asking questions can be found here at the Diane Rehm show. Rehm hosts the best radio program in the country devoted to ideas.  Her gift, one of her gifts, is the ability to make interesting ideas available to a large audience by interviewing an incredibly wide range of fascinating guests, politicians, professors, scientists, authors, and others. Sometimes her guests are not so eager to answer her questions.  Other times there is no controversy just wonder (in the good sense) at what the guest is saying.  No matter what the situation, Rehm’s questions and the way she asks them work.  She is unfailingly polite but never wobbly; always firm.  Like a Q.C., Rehm uses the art of questioning to bring forward things that matter, which is why I think of her as Diane Rehm, Q.C.

 

 

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Joseph H. Cooper

In 1880, in The Common Law, Holmes famously wrote, “The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.”

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Joseph H. Cooper, a gifted teacher and writer, like Holmes trained in but not suffocated by the law, demonstrated, in a perhaps unexpected but highly valuable way, why Holmes’ statement is true and ought never be forgotten.  You can find Cooper’s article here.

Cooper is one of the few first-rate writers whose columns speak to the reader without regard to political party or class or personal circumstance.  In a thoughtful, unassuming, unfailingly polite way, Cooper gives voice to what many, many people have experienced in life.  Sometimes his readers immediately identify with what he writes about, which can be a wonderful gift for the reader who unexpectedly realizes that he is not alone.  Other times Cooper writes about what life is like for others, for people easily forgotten, but who, when Cooper brings their voices forward, we can begin to appreciate as having a lot in common with us in terms of humanity if not circumstance.

I don’t know what Cooper’s intent is.  There is absolutely nothing snarky or preaching or mean about what he writes.  I am sure he means to be interesting and clear and respectful of both his subject matter and of his readers.  For me, he always succeeds.  In addition, whether this is what Cooper intends or is merely a by-product of his skill as a writer, his columns always give me an opportunity to reflect on and to care about things matter.  

Cooper is or should be a national treasure.  I wish his columns appeared regularly.  I think they would “work” (i.e. be greatly appreciated and regularly anticipated) in newspapers of all kinds all across the country.  As it is, his columns appear in papers large and small. I just wish I could count on seeing one of his columns every week.