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Lawyer in tune with the 'Times.

Lawyer-turned-scribe discovers opinion writing comes naturally

In many ways, it is a shorter lead for a lawyer to become an editorial writer than for a reporter to do so.

Writing for the opinion pages is a natural for people who have spent every waking moment arguing, debating, and trying to persuade. Climbing on a soapbox is nothing new to a lawyer, but for reporters, it must be an alien place. Up until being anointed editorialist, their professionalism had measured their ability to wring every bias, every predilection, every leaning from their copy. Then, they're told to write with subjectivity oozing from every line. It must be quite jarring.

Whereas I came to full-time column and editorial writing after 10 years as director of an American Civil Liberties Union affiliate, first in Utah then in Florida, advocacy was second-nature. I arrived at the paper with a fully formed opinion on every civil liberties and civil rights issue you could name.

Writing my opinion was easy. The trick was writing it in eight inches of copy in a punchy way that was interesting to a casual reader. It took me a while to realize, for example, that reciting facts in chronological order was not the way to connect with a newspaper audience.

While journalists are trained to work from an inverted pyramid, legal writers are instructed to methodically lay out a case. First comes a statement of the facts, which is usually in the order events occurred. Then comes the legal argument, a logical application of the current state of the law to the facts.

If your eyes are starting to glaze over just by reading the prior paragraph, you get an idea of what it's like reading a legal brief A brief can be about the most provocative issue going -- Is pornography protected speech? Do the Boy Scouts have to admit gay members? -- yet it will sound as dry and technical as a VCR operations manual. And long! Boy, do we lawyers know how to drone on in print. You'd think we were paid by the word.

Somehow I had to make the adjustment from writing about a subject in dry legalize, precise but boring, to writing with equal precision but in a way that draws the reader to the next paragraph.

My challenge was to go from this:

"Question presented: Whether the curfew ordinance, forcing young people under the age of 18 into their homes from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., violates the First Amendment to the US. Constitution by limiting their exercise of freedom of expression and religion during curfew hours?"

To this:

"By proposing a nighttime curfew on minors certain members of the St. Petersburg City Council want to put the city's law-abiding young people under house arrest every night and turn our police force into The Babysitters Club. These same council members, who can't come up with a cohesive doWINown parking policy, think they should be allowed to substitute their judgment for that of every parent in the city."

Editorial writing is really two parts lawyering combined with one part Madison Avenue. If the editorial doesn't have some of advertising's dazzle, it's not going to keep anyone's attention long enough to be persuasive. Reporters learn early in their careers to inject compelling stories, clever phrases, and pop references into articles. Lawyers just coming to the craft have to discover that trick for themselves.

Where lawyers have it all over journalists, though, is in their ability to communicate concepts, not just facts.

If there's anything missing from newspapers today, it's depth. A story can be factually accurate yet still miss the point by failing to explore the philosophical underpinnings of the conflict.

Take the juvenile curfew example again. The pro/con battle isn't between those who want to reduce juvenile crime and those who don't. Everyone wants less crime. It's between those who think government should have broad authority over the movements of young people and those who believe government is licensed to punish people only on the basis of their individual actions.

Politicians who push for curfews believe they should have the power to control city streets. People opposing curfews believe the Constitution constrains such power and guarantees individuals the right to be left alone. Unless a minor is engaged in criminal wrongdoing, they argue, the government has no authority to take away his or her liberty -- only parents have the right to do that.

Of course, it's hard enough for a reporter on deadline with 12 inches to write on a complex subject to get the facts right, never mind explore the ideological battle. The editorialist, though, can bring that perspective to the conflict. It is our job to plumb the conceptual depths -- something attorneys who step into the role may be better prepared to do.

In truth though, public interest lawyer and editorialist are very similar professions. We even come from the same stock. We're the ones who stayed clear of math and science courses in college. We're the ones our friends call public policy wonks. We're the ones, along with professors, who have sacrificed big salaries for "doing something important." It's no surprise the two professions experience people shifting between the two. As one who has done a little of both, I can say the work is closer than you might think.

NCEW member Robyn Blumner is an editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida and writes a syndicated column.
COPYRIGHT 2000 National Conference of Editorial Writers
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Article Details
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Author:BLUMNER, ROBYN
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
Words:910
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