Friday, May 4, 2012

Of Fair Rosalind

I got a call from a former student who is now on her way to becoming a hotshot lawyer at a fancy New York firm.  She informed me that the Public Theater will be producing As You Like It this summer in Central Park.  I love that play, which features one of the all-time-great cross-dressing roles: Rosalind. 

All lawyers should love Rosalind.

Rosalind spends a big chunk of the play wandering around in the Forest of Arden dressed like a man trying to tutor the beautiful, but intellectually inferior, Orlando.  The disguised Rosalind promises to cure Orlando of his love-sickness.  But what she really does is take the opportunity to school Orlando in being a more adept lover.  Seemingly, Orlando is so slow of wit that he does not realize that his mystery “male” tutor is actually the woman with whom he claims to be madly in love.  But Rosalind finds his oblivion endearing and is willing to give him a chance—if he can just improve his verbal communication skills.  That is, for Rosalind (and, presumably, Shakespeare) being able to work magic with words is an essential part of forging a meaningful relationship—including an erotic one.  Rosalind, an accomplished wit, will not be content with a stammering boy-toy whose idea of poetry is:

From the east to western Ind,
No jewel is like Rosalind.
Her worth, being mounted on the wind,
Through all the world bears Rosalind.
All the pictures fairest lined
Are but black to Rosalind.
Let no fair be kept in mind
But the fair of Rosalind.
(one of many such ditties by Orlando that Rosalind finds pinned to a tree in 3.2)

Every lawyer should feel some affinity for Rosalind and her insistence that Orlando fine-tune his writing skills.  After all, lawyers are essentially wordsmiths—who appreciate nuance and yet demand precision.  In fact, words are pretty much all we lawyers have in our arsenal (when playing fair).  And we are professionally obligated to obsess about words all day long. 

To succeed as a lawyer, you really have to accept at some point that you are primarily a professional writer.

And what do professional writers do?

The good ones worry endlessly about the most compelling and precise way to convey information, never settling for the first words that tumble out of the brain.  A good writer is a kind of filter who takes in raw experience and spins it around inside until it is distilled into a purer essence, releasing the refined material into the world only when (relatively) confident that it has assumed a more useful, powerful, elegant, or accessible form.

And unlike most poets, academics, and bloggers, lawyers generally get paid for the time they spend obsessing about word use.  Compensation is usually a foregone conclusion because the compulsion to craft legal writing stems from an external source.  Someone needs something—some concrete, law-related information, advice, or court-ordered relief.  And addressing that need requires that the lawyer write something fit for public consumption.

Many of my students seem surprised to learn that what most lawyers of every stripe do all day long is write—letters, research memos, policy proposals, contracts, deal due diligence, articles, and, most obviously, papers to be filed with courts.  For some reason, hit TV dramas ostensibly about lawyers lack this degree of verisimilitude.  You just never see episodes depicting young associates toiling over a brief to defeat a motion for summary judgment; and one would be hard pressed to recall a scene in any law-oriented film capturing the hours lawyers spend writing up the results of electronic research conducted to advise a client regarding a particular legal issue.

But the truth is:  Lawyers write; good lawyers write well; and the best lawyers are neurotically preoccupied with the quality of any “work product” to which their name is affixed—whether or not they penned a line of the material themselves.  The best lawyers know that their very reputations depend on the quality of their written work; and they know that nothing offends a client more than paying for hourly work the tangible manifestation of which is marred by typos.  In this, good lawyers are like fair Rosalind, for whom inarticulate yammering is “like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon.”  (5.3.115).

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