The Legal Nexus

A blog of the Maricopa County Bar Association

What Great Writers Can Teach Lawyers and Judges: Wisdom from Plato to Mark Twain to Stephen King

   By Douglas E. Abrams 

Mark Twain

“Writing,” said lawyer Abraham Lincoln in 1859, is “the great invention of the world.”[1] From ancient times, the writer’s craft has captivated leading figures in literature, non-lawyers who are remembered most often for what they wrote, and not for what they said about how to write. Their commentary about the writing process, however, seems unsurprising because facility with the written language brought recognition in their day and later in history.

Like most other close analogies, analogies between literature and legal writing may be imperfect at their edges. “Literature is not the

goal of lawyers,” wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter nearly eighty years ago, “though they occasionally attain it.”[2]  “The law,” said Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes even earlier, “is not the place for the artist or the poet.”[3]

Despite some imperfections across disciplines, advice from well-known fiction and non-fiction writers can serve lawyers and judges well because law, in its essence, is a literary profession heavily dependent on the written word. There are only two types

Stephen King

of writing – good writing and bad writing.  As poet (and Massachusetts Bar member) Archibald MacLeish recognized, good legal

writing is simply good writing about a legal subject.[4]  “[L]awyers would be better off,” said MacLeish, “if they stopped thinking of the language of the law as a different language and realized that the art of writing for legal purposes is in no way distinguishable from the art of writing for any other purpose.”[5]

As Justices Frankfurter and Holmes intimated, the tone and cadence of non-lawyer writers might vary from those of professionals who write in the law. Variance aside,
however, the core aim of any writer, lawyers and judges included, remains constant – to convey ideas through precise, concise, simple, and clear expression.[6]      This article presents instruction from master non-lawyer writers about these four characteristics


1.         “The difference between the almost right word and right word is . . . the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug” – Mark Twain.[7]

            When we read personal messages from acquaintances or newspaper columns by writers friendly to our point of Continue reading


April 25, 2011 Posted by | About Us | Leave a comment