Scalia takes stage to tell lawyers how to win

Saturday, July 26, 2008

WASHINGTON -- It was a pretty good crowd for a summer Friday morning at the Kennedy Center. From stage right Justice Antonin Scalia entered.

He walked over to a stool and took his seat with a music stand before him, a bottle of water nearby.

Scalia, unplugged? No. The conservative justice and his book-writing sidekick, Bryan Garner, were to deliver more than four hours of advice about how to make cases to judges.

"Lawyers generally are lousy writers," he said at one point, almost spitting out the words.

Before him sat nearly 1,000 lawyers and law students, many of whom paid $600 for their seats. They didn't mind his comment; they've heard that one before.

In fact, they had heard a lot of this before -- or perhaps read it in the book Scalia and Garner wrote, "Making Your Case, The Art of Persuading Judges."

Here, Scalia was the attraction.

"I always wanted to be center stage at the concert hall," he said, then added a joke at his own expense. Friday's program, he said, "is probably the dullest act" to make it here.

The two men launched into the 115 tips that make up their book, which teams the justice that many consider the Supreme Court's best writer with an expert on legal prose.

Some of the advice would only interest a lawyer: Be sure the tribunal has jurisdiction.

But other suggestions would be useful in many fields: Know your audience, communicate clearly and concisely.

The latter prompted an aside from Scalia. "This is like 'do good and avoid evil' or 'buy low and sell high,"' he said. But then he added it is rare for lawyers to write or argue without getting long-winded.

He made his own case for the art of making written arguments that judges actually will read, which he said will make those judges more likely to rule the way the lawyers want.

Garner, the president of LawProse Inc., had plenty of suggestions, too, about what makes for good and bad work by lawyers.

He laments the choice of lawyers for American Airlines to refer to their client as "AA" throughout a legal brief, instead of "American."

"Every judge reading that brief ... is an American," Garner said.

Talking about another case, he related an unfortunate decision by lawyers to use the initials PMS to describe private mail systems.

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