A thank you letter (or hate mail) for Fred Rodell

by: in Law
Lions mouth

Fred Rodell, the once revered Yale Law School professor and the “bad boy of American legal academia” wrote that “[t]here are two things wrong with almost all legal writing. One is its style. The other is its content.” His harrowing words acutely capture my conflicting relationship with (legal) writing, but more on point, it makes the path laid out before me (as someone in legal academia), a more difficult one to take.

In his renowned and (secretly) admired article, Goodbye for Law Review, Rodell professes his dislike for “long sentences, awkward constructions, and fuzzy-wuzzy words that seem to apologize for daring to venture an opinion…” often found in many legal publications. He also takes issues with how editors and publishers presume every writer “to be a liar until he proves himself otherwise with a flock of footnotes,” and describes reading through the sea of legal jargons and overly-cautious opinions as “kicks in the pants.” To him, legal writing is formulaic, pedantic, and spineless. While Rodell’s criticism is an attempt to roast the entire legal community, I feel his disappointed glare directed right at me, for I have committed many of these sins with my very own hands.

Perhaps for that reason, after reading Goodbye for Law Review, my desire to publish in law journals have quietly waned. It somehow feels disingenuous now. While I am often impressed by the sharp analytical abilities of many legal scholars and find their dedication to write endlessly about some arcane topic admirable, I am seldom moved and shaken to my core by them. I will not go as far as to wholeheartedly agree with Rodell – that the “literature of the law is a dud and a disgrace” – but while combing through the thickets of law journals over the last decade or so, I have yet to truly experience any “lighting of the fire” to paraphrase Yeats. The thing is, I want to write something that has a soul, something that moves people, something that even the great Fred Rodell would nod his rotting head in approval of; but can I do so within the confines set forth by various journals and their “highly distinguished” expectations?

Rodell’s writing is that one friend who whispers in your ear to have one more drink, when you know you should have already stopped a few rounds ago. Yet, his words are intoxicating and in my moments of weakness, I find them to be convincing. If I knew what was good for my career, I would probably ignore his murmurs, turn around, and head home; but I am drawn to his ideas, like a moth drawn to the bright glows of a burning candle, only to meet its fiery end. Rodell yanks at my heartstrings, writing that “while law is supposed to be a device to serve society, a civilized way of helping the wheels go round without too much friction, it is pretty hard to find a group less concerned with serving society and more concerned with serving themselves than the lawyers.” Am I one of these unconcerned, self-serving lawyers?

Rodell is relentless 
He accuses me that I only write to publish because my “chief interest” is in getting something published so that I can “wave it in the faces of [my] deans when [I] ask for a raise.” He criticizes me that I am simply “palm[ing] off inferior goods by… wrap[ing] them up in a respectable-looking package.” Heeding his words, I start questioning my past publications and my motives behind writing them: Is what I wrote or published in the past really “serving society” as I once hoped it would, or was it merely something more self-serving but in disguise? Rodell haunts me from beyond the grave.

I am tormented and perhaps deservedly so. Have I been selling out all this time? In making one of his more poignant points, Rodell tells me that “language is most useful when it is used normally and naturally, and that the law is nothing more than a means to a social end and should never… be treated as an end in itself.” Am I simply exploiting my knowledge of the law for my own personal gain and nothing more? To the extent that the number of my publication is directly linked to my status within the faculty and my continued employment, is our incentive system part of the problem?

Rodell is that friend who tells you that you can do better
That you were destined for something greater and that you ought to “shoot for higher stakes.” He is that cloven-footed friend who encourages you to go all in at the poker table, when you don’t really have the cards for it. Even Rodell himself acknowledges that disrupting the status quo will likely result in having my “head bitten off.” Yet, he encourages me to deviate from the more comfortable path laid out before me and nudges me to stick my head into the lion’s mouth. Write from the heart and move people, Rodell would chide. Conformity to some publishing expectations be damned! I feel emboldened, but only for a brief fleeting moment, as my cowardice and fear of being ostracized take over. I feel paralyzed.

But then I come to a sudden and sobering liberation: Rodell published his Goodbye to Law Review in a law review for crying out loud! His hypocritical irony should release me from his enchanting bounds and I should simply carry on going down the more complacent path of less resistance. But instead, I find Rodell’s call to arms still lingering in my ears like that of a Siren’s, festering my mind, challenging me to grow a spine. So instead of drafting articles worthy of being published in prestigious journals with a “flock of footnotes,” I find myself writing this… “thing” of dubious, unremarkable nature. Thanks Fred Rodell.

Image by Flickr, Laura Ferreira

  Further reading - more blogs on Law Blogs Maastricht and originally posted on M-EPLI