A long and rambling story about learning to write

What follows is a reminiscence about how I learned to write.  Be advised that this blog article rambles.  Set this article aside for some time when you are having trouble getting to sleep. 

The main point of the article, I suppose, is that in general we take too long to think of saying “thank you” to those teachers and mentors who invested in us.  And if so, then the only thing we can really do is try to pay it forward and try to be good teachers and mentors for those who come after us.

What made me think to write this blog article was a compliment recently from somebody who had read something that I wrote and said they thought I had written it well.  

Maybe I sometimes do good writing nowadays, but to the extent that that is so, it is only a fairly recent development in my career which spans some decades since law school.

A starting point in the telling of this story is to recognize that during high school, college, and law school, I was really stupid. I went through high school and college and law school actively selecting my courses to minimize how much writing I had to do.  I think after I graduated from law school, it is fair to say that for at least a decade I was (a) not a good writer at all and (b) incapable of looking at something I had just written and arriving at a correct judgment whether it was good writing or not.

We all reflect from time to time on the things that we would have done differently back then, had we known what we know now. My list of such things is surely as long as anybody’s list and probably much longer than most.  Somewhere in the top ten or so things on my list is that IIHITDOA (if I had it to do over again) I would have actively selected courses based on which ones had the most writing instead of the least.  I would have sought out every class where somebody was going to give me feedback on things that I wrote. 

In the life I lead now, nothing matters, absolutely nothing, except the extent to which I can put ink on a page and somehow communicate something to somebody else. It might be to pin down a common understanding between two people, it might be to stake out a claim clearly, it might be to render an opinion to a client, it might be to persuade someone to do what I want for a client … but it is all that matters.

Somebody famous, now of course I cannot recall exactly who, wrote about the sad fact that any effort to attempt to use words to communicate anything that really matters is destined and indeed guaranteed to be imperfect and that any goal of getting it right is indeed a futile enterprise. Given that fact about the human condition, I frequently remark to myself how odd it is that I ended up having self-selected a profession in which attempting to use words to communicate is pretty much the only thing that matters.    

Each of us has no difficulty immediately bringing to mind teachers who made a big difference for us.  Yes I had teachers who evoked wonder in me that helped me try to learn science and math.  In my case, where writing is concerned, the teachers who made a difference were partners in two law firms.

Proceeding in reverse chronological order, we reach my third job after having graduated from law schoo.  I had been at the firm of Brumbaugh Graves for about a year.  One of the firm’s partners, a guy named Henry Tang, called me in to his office and sat me down. It was clear some very serious subject was about to be discussed. He said a partnership meeting had just taken place and the partners had voted that somebody was going to have to try to teach me to write. In the meeting he had apparently volunteered for this task. The partners had voted, I learned later, that Henry would be relieved of a fraction of his ordinary professional billing obligations for two months while he spent much of his time trying as best he could to teach me to write.

We then spent two months on this. It was probably one-third of his waking hours for two months. He would give me something to write. I would write it. He would dissect it, try as best he could to find whatever was not a complete loss in my writing, hand it back covered in red ink, and so on. This went back and forth and around and around for about two months.  He would assign a patent application to draft.  An opinion letter to write.  A brief to be filed in court.  Task after task, document after document.

A previous effort had also been made at a previous firm, Kreindler & Kreindler, when I was fresh out of law school. A partner named Gerald Robbie had been tasked by that firm to try.  He did the best he could with what he had been given to work with, but even after some months of effort I had only made barely noticeable progress.

Anyway, to the extent that later in life I got to the point where sometimes I could actually do some good writing, it was Gerald Robbie and Henry Tang who deserve much of the credit. And it was their partners who carried them during their non-revenue-generating time who also deserve credit.

By the point in life where I was self-aware enough even to realize the magnitude of the gifts I had been given, both Jerry and Henry were gone. It was too late to say “thank you”.  Even now I feel some emotion when I realize what it means to think of saying “thank you” to a teacher only after the teacher is gone.

So this part of my reminiscence is recalling for the reader some of my thoughts during a stage in my life when finally I was self-aware enough to realize the magnitude of these gifts to me that I had received many years earlier.  At the point in life that I had caught on to the magnitude of these investments in me, I had recently launched my own law firm. I was for the first time a self-employed business owner rather than a paycheck-collecting employee. Only at that point in life did I have enough of a clue to realize that maybe something could be learned by pulling out a calculator and multiplying Henry’s billing rate times the number of billable hours that he had spent over that two-month period trying to pound something into my head. These numbers, multiplied together, would be the amount of money the other Brumbaugh partners had had to earn to cover Henry when he was not billing. This amount of money might be considered a sort of financial investment in me personally by the partners in the firm.  And here is what you get when you multiply the two numbers together — at a time when my annual salary was around $32K, the firm invested at least $75K in me for this two-month training exercise.

For the younger readers of this blog, let me just say that this was back when $75K was real money.  In constant-dollar terms, in the year 2020 this would probably be an investment of half a million dollars.

In today’s world one does not often hear of a law firm making training investments of this magnitude in their fresh-baked associates. It’s not easy to put into words how grateful I feel even now when I think of those experiences.

For every story that I could tell about a teacher who made a difference for me, I know that each reader of this blog could likewise bring to mind a teacher or mentor who made a big difference for him or her.  And for most of my readers, I’ll make a guess that for you it is also the sort of thing that can only be paid forward.  

Let’s all remind ourselves that it is not the worst thing if each of us can find some time now and again to try to pay things forward to the people who come after us.

3 thoughts on “A long and rambling story about learning to write

  1. Love this, Carl. Thank you for writing it and for reminding me that it is important to acknowledge those who have helped us along the way, whether with words of encouragement or massive investments of their time.

    On the topic of writing, I will be eternally grateful for my legal writing professor from my 1L year (Karen Marcus). She was SUCH a stickler. If you accidentally italicized the comma after the case name in a Bluebook citation, well, you lost points. But the next time you were more careful. We students complained at the time about how picky she was, but she whipped all of us into shape. It is because of her that I know how to write effectively as a lawyer, and I still use what she taught me today in every office action response I write.

    My final paper from her class (a memo of points and authorities for a made-up case about trade secret theft) ended up being my writing sample during OCIs. I will never forget walking into a partner’s office at one of the firms at which I was interviewing. The first words out of his mouth were something to the effect of, “Your writing sample was great. I actually have a trade secret theft case RIGHT NOW, and your memo got me up to speed quickly.” Is there a better testimonial of her impact?

    One of my classmates and I took this professor to lunch after we graduated and told her how much we appreciated her class. Unfortunately for the law school, she retired.

  2. A nice reflection on how your writing skills came to be. I am sure your mentors at the time saw progress in your work and took great satisfaction in your growth.

    My college required “rhetoric” class, or an “A” grade on two writing assignments from an English professor. That didn’t mean I knew how to write until being forced to be clear in communicating with teachers bringing students to our residential environmental education center. Before computers 🙂 we had to do everything in writing. Even phone calls were expensive, so clear writing was imperative.

    I enjoy writing and part of that is trying to get into the shoes of my audience and think about what do they need (or not need) to know and how to best explain it. I find that challenge to be fun.

  3. One lesson I learned is that each word should be necessary. Concise writing takes work. Some say the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal famously wrote: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”

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