Speaking of the Review: Speech at the Oakland NLG Convention, October 24, 2015

By Deborah Willis

I want to thank the Guild for the Arthur Kinoy Award. I was surprised—in fact I was floored—but I’m very pleased and proud to receive it. Arthur Kinoy is someone I’ve admired for years and it’s an honor to receive an award with his name on it.
I’m not a lawyer. I’m more like a Lawyers Guild groupie. I believe in the Guild and the Guild’s work. I believe that the work that all of you do is important. What I wanted was to be a cog in your machine, and I’m happy there was something I could do that the Guild needed to be done.
I’m a graphic designer, a layout person, and sometimes an editor. I’ve been working with the National Lawyers Guild Review —or under its old name, the Guild Practitioner —for 20 years, because I know the nuts and bolts of how to put out a publication and get it to the printer. It’s behind-the-scenes work and some of it is pure drudgery, but I get a lot of satisfaction from it. The reward has been that I’ve gotten to work with some amazing people.
Putting out the Review is and always has been a group effort, so I share this award with all the members of the editorial board over the years, under our editors-in-chief Marjorie Cohn, then David Gespass, and now Nathan Goetting. Right now we have a strong editorial team and it’s a pleasure working with them. I’m glad to say that the Review is going strong.
I want to talk a few minutes about why I think the Review is important to the Guild. I don’t know how many of you read the Review . I don’t think it’s ever perfect —in fact I know it’s never perfect—but it’s as good as we can make it. Meeting deadlines with all volunteers isn’t easy, but we do our best.
The Review is important because it’s one of the Guild’s voices. In the world of law reviews it’s almost unique. It’s a voice that needs to be heard.
What’s more, it’s a voice that will last, because it’s indexed on Westlaw and other places. Law students can look up our articles, and find out, if they didn’t know, that there’s dissent, a different way of looking at things from what most of them are hearing in law school. The Review is a permanent record of what we’ve thought and what we’ve argued and what we’ve stood for.
By and large that record shows how clear the Guild’s vision has been, from 1940 when the Review started publishing, when the issues were the National Labor Relations Board, the New Deal, and “race relations” to today when we’re talking about the Fight for 15, Obamacare, and #BlackLivesMatter.
We have some good articles coming out and I want to point out one of them, written by Jules Lobel, because it’s largely about the Lawyers Guild. It talks about how the Guild managed to survive for nearly 80 years, and still preserved its commitment to social justice and social change. Not only preserved it, but expanded it. And the way this was done is important for us to know about if we care about the future of the Guild. So I hope you’ll read it.
Here’s my shameless plug: I know you’re all busy with your work and that’s the way it should be. But I’m asking you to read the Review. Take some time to skim through it, read something that catches your attention. Then talk back to us. If nothing catches your attention, tell us so. If you find something wrong, or if you disagree with something, write us about it. Help us make it better. We need more writers and editors, and we can always use more articles.
Especially if you’re doing work that others in the Guild could benefit from knowing about, WRITE about it for us. It may be a lot to ask from working lawyers, but it’s important.
To me, the Review should not only be an academic publication, but it should also be a place for Guild members to share their experience of what’s working or not working in their legal work. The Review is a place where we can have a conversation, where we can argue over issues, where we can articulate our positions and have them challenged, where we can refine our thought. Because the way issues are framed is fundamental to the way they are won.
A few last words. Working on the Review, I’ve learned to love good writing—strong, persuasive writing. I’ve developed a few opinions about it.
Lawyers often use a ponderous style of writing that is deadly to read. It’s repetitive, it’s cautious, and it’s pompous. It’s meant to impress. It makes a point and then makes it again. Maybe it’s meant to sound inevitable, as it rolls over you and bores you to death. I find writers using the passive voice a lot —where no one does anything, but actions are taken. This leaves me thinking that the writers aren’t quite willing to commit to what they’re saying, and that they want to leave themselves a loophole. A quick example is President Ronald Reagan’s comment on the Iran Contra scandal: “Mistakes were made.” He meant, bad things happened on my watch, but I wasn’t responsible. The passive voice leaves space for weaseling out, and it should be used sparingly.
If you read something and it’s confusing, you know that the writer isn’t sure of what they are saying, and they’re probably just as confused as you are. Maybe they haven’t thought it through well enough. I’ve learned that good writing mostly comes from editing —a process of going back to to simplify or amplify, to rephrase or rethink, until you’ve clarified your thinking and your language.
Or it could be the writer does know what they’re saying, but they aim to confuse you, the reader, into thinking they’re saying something else. That’s almost a definition of political writing. I prefer to leave that brand of persuasive writing to those on the other side of the argument who need it, reactionaries, conservatives, most Republicans, and some Democrats, who write to make us believe they have our interests at heart when they don’t, and who play on our fears for their own ends. A choice of language can twist the meaning and it can mislead. You can see this working in loaded words like “abortion factory,” or in words people can hide behind like “collateral damage” and “enhanced interrogation”—on occasions when “mistakes were made.”
On our side we need to work at writing to make things clear. We need to write to expose the machinery of power, of racism, and of greed, to argue and to reason out how we propose to change it. We need to write what we mean. One thing that sets Bernie Sanders apart from every other presidential candidate is his ability to state the issues in plain language and cut to the heart of what they’re about. You can understand him and you can’t miss his point.
I think most of us in the Guild can do this. But things may be changing — instant communication by text and twitter, instagram and email is beginning to remap our relationship with language. Students come out of college without having written enough to be good at it. I was just talking with a friend who thinks writing is about to become a lost art. I hope it’s not, but what I know is, you need to be able to write well to be persuasive. You need to know how to structure an argument, to lead your readers through it, to connect the dots, and tell them what they need to know, so that in the end, their conclusion may come to be the same as your conclusion.
We need to be good writers. Because the clear expression of the political arguments we make is essential to the Guild as an organization that works for social change.
Deborah Willis is a graphic designer in Los Angeles, California. She began typesetting and laying out the National Lawyers Guild Review in 1996.