The History of Scribes
by Norman Otto Stockmeyer*
Scribes is a national organization of legal writers dedicated to the following goals:
(1) to foster a feeling of fraternity among those who write about the law — and especially among its members;
(2) to create an interest in writing about the history, philosophy, and language of the law and about those who make, interpret, and enforce it;
(3) to help and encourage people who write about the law; and
(4) above all, to promote a clear, succinct, and forceful style in legal writing.
For more than half a century, Scribes has promoted these goals by sponsoring awards, conducting programs, and publishing periodicals. Former Scribes president James J. Brown, when asked to describe the organization, replied: “Scribes is what it does!” This brief history tells how Scribes came to be and what it does.
Like many mid-twentieth-century legal reforms, Scribes originated with Chief Justice Arthur T. Vanderbilt of New Jersey. In 1951, he invited several like-minded lawyers to join him in creating an organization to promote and pay tribute to excellence in legal writing.
Vanderbilt’s organization adopted the unusual name-cum-tagline “Scribes – The American Society of Writers on Legal Subjects.” Membership initially was limited to members of the legal profession who had published at least one book or three articles on legal subjects. They also had to be nominated by an existing member.
At the first meeting of Scribes, the membership consisted of 41 charter members. Over the years, the eligibility requirement for regular membership was reduced to one book or two articles; the nomination requirement was eliminated; and a category of associate member was added.
Through active recruitment, membership has increased to nearly 2,700 today. The top three states in membership are New York, Texas, and Michigan.
Scribes members include practicing lawyers, state and federal judges, law-school deans and professors, and legal editors. The men and women on the Board of Directors include representatives of all these groups.
In 1990, Roy Mersky, of the University of Texas School of Law, championed institutional memberships for law schools. Through the efforts of Steven R. Smith, President and Dean at California Western School of Law, and Darby Dickerson, University Vice President and Dean at Stetson University College of Law, 37 law schools have since become institutional members. Professors at those schools are automatically members of Scribes if they meet the eligibility requirements.
More recently, the institutional-membership category has been expanded to include appellate courts. The judges become members automatically once a court joins.
During its first 20 years, Scribes had no permanent home. As with a circuit-riding judge, the Scribes office was wherever its current president resided. Its staff was whatever staff the president could afford to devote to the organization.
In the early 1970s, a new practice was established having various law schools host a home office for Scribes. A member of the host school’s faculty served as Scribes’ Executive Director. Kenneth Zick and Thomas Steele served at Wake Forest University School of Law, and Glen-Peter Ahlers served at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Leflar Law Center, and Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law.
In 2005, the Scribes office was moved to Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Cooley professor Joe Kimble was Executive Director at the time. He was succeeded in 2009 by Professor Norm Plate.
One of Scribes’ first activities was to present awards to those who write well. The annual Scribes Book Award, instituted in 1961, is presented at the Scribes annual membership luncheon. The luncheon is held in conjunction with the American Bar Association’s annual meeting. The recipient is invited to offer brief remarks and autograph copies of the winning book.
Each year since 1987, the editors of every law journal have been invited to submit a copy of their best student-written note or comment. The entries are reviewed by volunteer legal-writing professors and then submitted to the Scribes selection committee. The Scribes Law-Review Award is presented to the wining author and journal at the “Scribes Dinner” at the annual National Conference of Law Reviews.
In 1996, the Scribes Brief-Writing Award was initiated. Any law student who has won best brief in a regional or national moot-court competition is invited to submit the brief so that Scribes can select and honor the best of the best. Another cadre of volunteer legal-writing professors reviews the entries and submits the finalists to the Scribes selection committee.
As with the Book Award, the Brief-Writing Award is presented at the Scribes annual membership luncheon during the ABA annual meeting. The luncheons are partially underwritten by Thomson-West to keep ticket prices modest.
Each of the Scribes award competitions is different in its target, its rules, and its management, but all have been successful long enough that the awards have become highly prized.
Periodically, Scribes has given other awards. In 1990, Albert P. Blaustein was presented with the Scribes Distinguished Service Award for his work as a constitutional draftsman and his authorship of 20 books and hundreds of articles on the law.
The Scribes Lifetime-Achievement Award has been presented to Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (2002), Judge Richard Arnold of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (2004), U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia (2008) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2009), and Richard Wydick, author of Plain English for Lawyers (2010).
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Scribes provided a pool of speakers to talk to law students about legal writing. In 1975, Scribes expanded its speakers programs into a Legal-Writing Institute. The first institute was held at St. John’s University Law School, attracting several top speakers and over 200 attendees. From 1975 through 1996, Scribes held eight institutes, most in New York City.
In more recent years, Judge Michael Hyman of Chicago has arranged for Scribes to participate in legal-writing programs at ABA annual meetings. In 2003, Scribes cosponsored with the ABA Litigation Section a program titled “Motion Potion: How to Write Better Pleadings.” Then in 2004, with the ABA Business Law Section, the program “How Business Lawyers SHOULD Write”; and then in 2005, again with the Business Law Section, the program “How to Write Like Hemingway, Esquire: Legal Writing for Litigators Made Easy.”
In 2007, Scribes presented a panel discussion on “Jury Instructions in Plain English” at the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools in Washington, D.C. And in 2008, Scribes and the New York City Bar Association’s Legal History Committee cosponsored a symposium on Abraham Lincoln’s legal writing.
Recently, Scribes has returned to the goal of speaking directly to law students about legal writing. Under a practice initiated in 2006, law schools have hosted the annual Scribes board meetings. In exchange, Scribes has conducted legal-writing programs for the schools’ students.
For an organization of writers, Scribes’ early history was remarkable for its dearth of published materials. Publications were often discussed, but few were undertaken.
One early success was Advocacy and the King’s English, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1960. The book has been reissued in 2010 under the title Classic Essays on Legal Advocacy. It is published by The Lawbook Exchange in Clark, New Jersey, and is available on amazon.com.
Scribes also published a Style Manual in 1957 and a Primer on Legal Writing in 1974. ThePrimer, which was distributed at Scribes programs, contained detailed instructions on researching and writing law-review articles and law-office memorandums.
The Scrivener. Since its inception in 1975, Scribes’ quarterly newsletter, The Scrivener, has evolved from being largely a vehicle for membership and organizational news to including short, useful pieces on legal writing and publishing. Cooley professor Jane Siegel has been its editor since 2004.
The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing. The Scribes board began in 1987 to discuss plans for establishing a scholarly journal. Board members obtained a commitment from West Publishing Company to underwrite printing and distribution costs.
For editor in chief, the board selected Bryan Garner, then a young University of Texas law-school instructor who had just published a new dictionary of legal usage. Today he is recognized as the preeminent authority on legal writing and language.
The first issue of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing was published in 1990 with an initial circulation of 3,000 copies. Joe Kimble became its editor in chief in 2001.
The Scribes Journal has been a singular success. There is no journal like it in the world. It has published articles by many of the best-known figures in legal writing — including Garner, Kimble, Charles Alan Wright, Richard Posner, Lawrence Friedman, Richard Wydick, Reed Dickerson, Irving Younger, Steven Stark, Darby Dickerson, and Wayne Schiess.
The Scribes Journal is widely distributed, read, and cited, with a circulation exceeding 10,000 copies. Since Volume 9, printing and mailing costs have been underwritten by Cooley Law School. With the Scribes Journal, Scribes has taken the largest stride yet toward fostering “a clear, succinct, and forceful style in legal writing.”
Although its goals remain unchanged after more than 50 years, Scribes has evolved with the times. For example, in 1960 the board voted to cap membership at 300 to maintain exclusivity; but recently the category of associate member was created so that any member of the legal profession may join. Legal-Writing Institutes are gone, but Scribes has initiated legal-writing “webinars” through its website: www.scribes.org. In 2006, the tagline was shortened to The American Society of Legal Writers.
The next 50 years will no doubt bring more changes, but Scribes will be there to promote and pay tribute to excellence in legal writing.
* This history is derived from the article Scribes After More Than 50 Years – A History, 12 Scribes Journal of Legal Writing 1 (2008-2009). The author is a past president of Scribes.