U.S. Supreme Court

Scalia: Legal Writing Doesn't Exist


Justice Antonin Scalia—the U.S. Supreme Court’s great dissenter—stayed true to form as he accepted a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Legal Writers on Saturday.

“I do not believe that legal writing exists,” he told an audience of approximately 100 at the Harvard Club in Manhattan.

Lest the listeners think the man who recently co-authored a book devoted in large part to how to write effective briefs had had a change of heart, he continued, “That is to say, I do not believe it exists as a separate genre of writing. Rather, I think legal writing belongs to that large, undifferentiated, unglamorous category of writing known as nonfiction prose. Someone who is a good legal writer would, but for the need to master a different substantive subject, be an equivalently good writer of history, economics or, indeed, theology.”

While teaching legal writing early in his career at the University of Virginia School of Law, “it became clear to me, as I think it must become clear to anyone who is burdened with the job of teaching legal writing, that what these students lacked was not the skill of legal writing, but the skill of writing at all. To tell the truth, at as late a stage as law school, I doubt this skill can be taught.

“What I hoped to have conveyed to my charges in those years were merely the prerequisites for self-improvement in writing, which are two things. Number one, the realization—and it occurred to my students as an astounding revelation – that there is an immense difference between writing and good writing. And two, that it takes time and sweat to convert the former into the later.”

The Society—also referred to as the Scribes—holds its annual luncheon during the ABA Annual Meeting.

More on Scalia:

ABA Journal: “A Voice for the Write”

Hear the audio

ABA Journal: Excerpts from “Making Your Case”

Annual Meeting 2008:

Read more news from the ABA Annual Meeting.

See candid photographs of attendees on Flickr.

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