Reclaiming Your Writer’s Ethos
by Scott Stolley
Quality writing is done by people of quality. — George Kennedy
One of the best quotations from Strunk and White’s classic book, The Elements of Style, is “No writer long remains incognito.” By this, Strunk and White meant that a writer’s personality will manifest in the writing, despite the writer’s best efforts to the contrary.
It is simply inevitable that your writing will reflect your personality. As Carolyn Myss observed, “The world behind the eyes creates the world in front of the eyes.” In short, what you put on paper reflects your inner world.
That said, it’s amazing how much legal writing is devoid of personality. Law school and the early years of law training combine to bleach the personality right out of us. This is a leading cause of dull and wretched briefs and other legal papers.
But our legal training is only one cause of the problem. It is also a function of the lawyer personality. Law firm consultant Dr. Larry Richard has studied lawyer personalities and arrived at some troubling conclusions.
For example, Richard found that two-thirds of lawyers are introverts, compared with only one-fourth of the general population. Lawyers have a 90 percent score on the “skepticism” trait, versus 50 percent in the general population. Lawyers score 82 percent on abstract reasoning, versus 50 percent in the general population.
With respect to “resilience” (defined as the ability to weather criticism), lawyers are at 30 percent, compared to 50 percent in the general population. Worst of all, lawyers score only 7 percent on the “sociability” trait, versus 50 percent in the general public.
So lawyers as a whole are introverted, nonsociable skeptics, who are skilled at abstract reasoning, but terrible at accepting criticism. Talk about a prescription for bland and lifeless (even deadly) legal writing. It’s downright scary when you combine those traits with legal training.
This sad state of affairs collides head-on with a fundamental tenet of persuasion. Expert after expert has said that the key to persuasion is to sell yourself.
F.L. Lucas said about writing that “Soul is more than syntax. If your readers dislike you, they will dislike what you say.” James Raymond observed that “Most people will be persuaded neither by reason nor by emotion, but by the ethos—the character—of the author.” John Trimble commented that “If you do not persuade [your readers] to accept you, it’s doubtful that you will persuade them to buy the ideas you’re proffering.”
So it comes down to this—the writer’s personality and character (ethos) is a key to persuasion. But the lawyer personality, combined with legal training, often produces barren, dreary, lackluster writing without personality. Lawyers are missing out on a great opportunity to persuade by not letting their ethos shine through.
Here are some suggestions to reclaim your writer’s ethos and inject it into your writing:
● Be Yourself—Let your own personality light up your writing. Do not settle for the standard, accepted style of legal writing. If you can do this, you will, as William Zinsser says, “stand out as a real person among the robots . . . .”
● Study Good Writing—In developing your own style, study other good writers, but do not try to copy them. Learn from them, but develop a style that is authentic to you.
● Have a Theme—Trial lawyers have known for years that their case must have a theme. Your writing will have more personality if you build your persuasion around a theme.
● Tell a Story—A theme is great, but it must fit within a story. Human beings naturally gravitate toward a good story. Be human and you will attract other humans.
● Have a Heart—As Arthur Quiller-Couch declared, “[T]he first and last secret of a good Style consists in thinking with the heart, as well as with the head.” Lawyers have to restrain their analytical mindset and think more compassionately.
● Be Credible—Credibility with the court is paramount, so be scrupulously honest. Even if no other part of your personality shines through, you want to project an ethos of credibility.
● Listen to Your Writing—Some experts advocate reading your words out loud, to make sure you have the right tone. Even saying the words silently in your head is a useful way to ensure that your tone is consistent with your ethos.
● Moderate Your Skepticism—We are paid to be skeptical of the other side’s arguments. But you do not have to be outraged by them. Keeping your comments moderate will cast the ethos that you are a reasonable person.
● Be Resilient—Let trusted colleagues critique your work and tell you when you have deviated from your ethos.
Lloyd Paul Stryker concluded that “The success or failure of an advocate comes down at last to this: What manner of man [or woman] is it who is speaking?” Lawyers can be more successful advocates if they can overcome the lawyer personality and legal training to reclaim and project their true ethos.
Scott P. Stolley is the leader of the Appellate Practice Group at Thompson & Knight LLP in Dallas. He is Board Certified in Civil Appellate Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He can be reached at Scott.Stolley@tklaw.com.