Scribes: The American Society of Legal Writers
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Scribes is an organization dedicated to encouraging legal writers and improving legal writing throughout the entire legal community — in court, in the law office, in the publishing house, and in law school. Founded in 1953, Scribes is the oldest organization of its kind. Scribes has almost 2,700 members, including state and federal judges, practicing lawyers, law-school deans and professors, and legal editors. Its executive office is located in Lansing, Michigan, and the executive director is Norman E. Plate.
As written in its Constitution, Scribes' goals are:
- to foster a feeling of fraternity among those who write about the law — and especially among its members;
- to create an interest in writing about the history, philosophy, and language of the law and about those who make, interpret, and enforce it;
- to help and encourage people who write about the law; and
- above all, to promote a clear, succinct, and forceful style in legal writing.
In 1990, Scribes printed its first volume of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing. The initial circulation was 3,000 copies. And its editor in chief was Bryan Garner, then a young law-school professor at the University of Texas. Today, Garner is recognized as the preeminent authority on legal writing and language. He is a Board member of Scribes.
The Scribes Journal distribution now exceeds 10,000 copies. It has published articles by some of the best-known figures in legal writing — Garner himself, Joseph Kimble, Charles Alan Wright, Judge Richard Posner, Lawrence M. Friedman, Richard Wydick, Reed Dickerson, Dean Darby Dickerson, Irving Younger, Steven Stark, and Wayne Schiess.
The Journal is widely read and cited. Since 2001, the editor in chief has been Professor Joseph Kimble. And beginning with Volume 9, 2003–2004, printing and distribution have been sponsored by Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
The Scrivener has been Scribes’ quarterly newsletter since 1975. Originally, it was used for membership updates and organizational news. But today, it also includes shorter pieces about legal writing and publishing.
In 1960, Scribes issued Advocacy and the King’s English, published by Bobbs-Merrill Company. Forty years later, the book was reissued under the title Classic Essays on Legal Advocacy, published by The Lawbook Exchange in Clark, New Jersey. Scribes also has other books in progress.
The Scribes Lifetime-Achievement Award has been presented to five persons who have had a great influence on legal writing or distinguished themselves in their own writing:
- Professor Emeritus Richard C. Wydick in 2010, UC Davis School of Law, and author of Plain English for Lawyers (Carolina Academic Press);
- The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2009, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court;
- The Honorable Antonin Scalia in 2008, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court;
- The Honorable Richard S. Arnold in 2004, Chief Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit; and
- The Honorable Guido Calabresi in 2002, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and former Dean and Professor at Yale Law School.
Since 1961, Scribes has presented its annual Book Award for the best legal work published during the previous year. The Scribes Book-Award Committee reviews 30 to 40 submissions each year, and the award is presented at Scribes’ annual luncheon meeting, where the author usually speaks and signs copies of the book.
Since 1987, Scribes has presented its annual Law-Review Award for the best student-written article published in a law review or law journal. Each year, the editors of every law review and law journal are encouraged to submit their best student-written note or comment. Then, volunteer legal-writing professors review the articles and submit the finalists to the Scribes selection committee. The committee selects a winner, and the award is presented at the "Scribes Dinner" at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Law Reviews.
In 1996, Scribes began an annual Brief-Writing Award for the best student-written brief. Each year, any law student who won best brief in a regional or national moot-court competition may submit the brief to Scribes, which then honors the best of the best. As with the Law-Review Award, volunteer legal-writing professors review the articles and decide on the finalists. The Scribes committee selects a winner, who receives the award at Scribes' annual luncheon.
In 2007, Scribes created the National Order of Scribes to honor graduating law students who excel in legal writing. Each year, every law school that is an institutional member of Scribes may nominate up to five of its law students to be inducted into the National Order of Scribes. As with other Scribes awards, a list of all honorees, past and present, appear on the Scribes website.
Scribes has on several occasions participated in legal-writing programs at the American Bar Association’s annual meetings. In 2007, Scribes participated in the Association of American Law Schools’ annual meeting in Washington, D.C., where it presented a panel discussion on “Jury Instructions in Plain English.” And in 2008, Scribes teamed up with the New York City Bar Association’s Legal History Committee to cosponsor a symposium on Abraham Lincoln’s legal writing.
Recently, Scribes has also made a point of speaking directly to law students about legal writing. Since 2006, institutional-member law schools have hosted Scribes’ annual board meetings. In return, Scribes conducts legal-writing programs for the school's students.
Scribes’ annual luncheon meeting is held in conjunction with the ABA's annual meeting. Over the years, some of the most influential figures in legal writing have presented talks at the luncheon meeting.
Scribes had 41 members at its first meeting in the early 1950s. But today, membership has grown to almost 2,700 members — including state and federal judges, practicing lawyers, law-school deans and professors, and legal editors. Any member of the legal profession is eligible to join.
In 1990, President Roy M. Mersky helped develop a new category of membership for law schools — institutional membership. Since then, 37 law schools have become institutional members. And once a law school becomes an institutional member, professors at those schools automatically become a Scribes member if they meet the other eligibility requirements. In the mid-2000s, institutional membership expanded to include appellate courts. And once an appellate court becomes an institutional member, the judges on that court automatically become members of Scribes.
- Norman Otto Stockmeyer, Meet Scribes, A Society That Promotes Legal-Writing Excellence, __ Mich. B.J. 40 (Mar. 2011) (available at http://www.michbar.org/journal/pdf/pdf4article1831.pdf).
- Thomas M. Steele & Norman Otto Stockmeyer, Scribes After More Than 50 Years — A History, 12 Scribes J. Legal Writing 1, 8 (2008–2009)