WRITING SEMINAR FOR LAWYERS
“GOOD WRITING IS NO MYSTERY”
Over the last few years I’ve developed this two-hour writing seminar for lawyers. I’ve given it at the Osgoode Hall LLM course, and many of the top law firms in Canada.
For lawyers in Ontario who take the course, the receive two hours of DCP.
It’s hands on, fun and you will learn something.
Here’s the outline of the course.
Get in touch if you want to get together a group of lawyers to do a seminar, or if your firm or law school is interested.
LAW SOCIETY OF UPPER CANADA LAWYER TRAINING COURSE
GOOD WRITING IS NO MYSTERY
Robert Rotenberg has been a criminal lawyer in Ontario for more than 21 years. He is also the author of three best-selling novels, “Old City Hall,” “The Guilty Plea,” and “Stray Bullets.” His fourth novel, “Stranglehold,” will come out in May, 2013. His books have been sold in more than 20 countries and translated into nine languages.
Before he began his law practice, Rotenberg was the managing editor of an English-language magazine in Paris, France, (Passion Magazine), and then relocated to Toronto to publish and edit his own magazine (T.O. The Magazine of Toronto). Rotenberg also worked as a radio producer at CBC Radio.
Rotenberg has an undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto (in English and Political Science), an LL.B from Osgoode Hall Law School, and an LL.M from the London School of Economics.
The Purpose of the Seminar:
Lawyers write all the time. They correspond with each other, with clients and with experts. They write memoranda and prepare submissions to courts. They draft agreements . Since the advent of email, they write more and more.
Much of this writing is too long. Too complicated. And not effective.
The goal of this seminar is to teach lawyers to simplify their language, learn the basics of good story telling and become better writers.
Before the Seminar (“Homework”)
Rotenberg will ask the participants to do a few simple things:
a. send Rotenberg a short (maximum two pages) piece of legal writing that they have struggled with recently (Rotenberg will review them in advance and suggest revisions during the seminar);
b. send Rotenberg the first paragraph of a piece of non-legal writing they have had difficulty with recently (it can be anything, such as a letter to a friend, an email to a colleague, a complaint about your phone bill, etc.);
c. bring to the seminar a copy of the lyrics from a song they like:
d. bring a book (fiction or non-fiction) that is meaningful to them and highlight one paragraph that “spoke” to them;
e. write a haiku (Rotenberg will provide samples and a template in advance.)
First Half Hour (Focus and Simplicity)
That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.
Rotenberg begins the class by using the lyrics to a few songs (“Maggie May,” “Yesterday,” etc.) to show there is no need to use long words to tell a story. Participants read out various lyrics and note how short most of the words are in a good song.
Second Half Hour (Five Key Rules and a nod to Lord Denning)
Rotenberg stresses five key points for lawyers to consider every time they write:
1. Active voice, not passive voice.
2. Show, don’t tell.
3. Anglo-Saxon versus Norman words.
4. Verbs: using powerful verbs.
5. Adjectives and Adverbs. how to get rid of most of them.
Rotenberg demonstrates the difference between Anglo-Saxon words (which are short, simple and direct) and Norman words (which are long, complex and indirect).
Rotenberg creates a list of “bad words which lawyers use” (heretofore, hereinafter, thus, in particular, etc.) which he adds to throughout the seminar.
“Show, Don’t Tell”: Rotenberg reviews a few of the haiku poems to introduce this concept, which is the foundation for all good narrative writing.
As a judge, Lord Denning attempted to make his decisions and the law easily understood by members of the general public. He believed that the public would not want to follow the law unless they understood it and believed that it was just.]In his judgments, he referred to the parties by name rather than as "plaintiff" and "defendant" and used short sentences and a "storytelling" approach. For example, in Beswick v. Beswick, he began his judgment as follows:
Old Peter Beswick was a coal merchant in Eccles, Lancashire. He had no business premises. All he had was a lorry, scales, and weights. He used to take the lorry to the yard of the National Coal Board, where he bagged coal and took it round to his customers in the neighbourhood. His nephew, John Joseph Beswick, helped him in his business. In March 1962, old Peter Beswick and his wife were both over 70. He had had his leg amputated and was not in good health. The nephew was anxious to get hold of the business before the old man died. So they went to a solicitor, Mr. Ashcroft, who drew up an agreement for them.]
Rotenberg will review one or two of Lord Denning’s more famous judgments and show how they follow the five rules and why they are so effective.
Third Half Hour (Story Structure: Where to Start and How To Keep Telling the Tale. The “Rule of Five”)
“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
Everything you write has to tell a story. But where to begin? How to structure it? How to keep it interesting?
Rotenberg will turn to a few of the writing samples from the participants. First the opening paragraphs to discuss where to start, and then the longer pieces to look at the structure, pacing and effectiveness of the writing.
The participants will begin to see and apply what they’ve learned. Rotenberg will show a detailed edit he has done of one paragraph in each of the longer pieces as a means of demonstrating these points. He will key in on things such as: ungainly sentences, overly descriptive passages, weak and windy verbs.
Rotenberg will then discuss his “Rule of Five,” which means that every story can be broken down into just five narrative points. He’ll use another judgment of Lord Denning as an example, and also discuss the participants’ longer pieces, break down the structure and point out the flaws in the story telling. He’ll then get each participant to write out the five key plot points in a well-known play or movie, such as “Hamlet,” or “The Fugitive” etc.
Fourth Half Hour:
Writing on the spot.
"I apologize that this letter is so long - I lacked the time to make it short."
Rotenberg gives the participants the opening line to a novel (or a short story) and five minutes to write a full paragraph. They then read their own work out loud, and others critique it. By this point the participants can see when the writing is doing too much telling and not enough showing, is too passive, has too many adjectives and adverbs, etc.
The process is repeated writing haikus.
Throughout the Seminar
You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Throughout the seminar Rotenberg asks participants to read paragraphs from the novels they have brought in. This leads to short discussions about why the passages are effective and illustrates many of the points discussed.
As well, Rotenberg reads short passages from his own novels, and other writers whose work he admires.
The seminar goes by very quickly. Participants are actively engaged. Everyone learns, and we all have fun. The goal is make the participants see that good writing requires discipline, focus and an eye for simplicity.
To date I’ve taught this seminar at:
a. Osgoode Hall LLM, ADR program. Contact is professor Paul Emond: firstname.lastname@example.org
b. Aird Berlis LLP. Contact is Ari Blicker, Director of Student & Associate Programs: email@example.com
c. Gowlings. Contact is Susan Clarke: firstname.lastname@example.org