A Family Goes to Harvard — the Nora Rule

13 Apr

A Family Goes to Harvard:  “The Nora Rule”

Attending Harvard Law while trying to mother three school age children inspired amazing lessons.  So much of what I learned in class was filtered through the eyes of my children as they asked and burrowed and dug deeper into every answer about what Mother was doing all the time she was away.

I explained.  It wasn’t enough.  I explained again.  It didn’t make sense.  I started sharing.  The first and best lesson came as a result of a required legal writing class that every 1L took first semester.  There were exercises—draft a simple complaint, prepare an answer, draft simple discovery—I think we may have finished with a very simple summary judgment motion or opposition.  I should take care to say that the lesson was a result of the legal writing class.  It was not provided by or learned in that class.  Instead, it came fully articulated by my then-nine-year old daughter.

The “Nora Rule”

Nora was an extraordinarily bright fourth grader when I started at the Law School—and when I took the legal writing class.  On a whim, I handed Nora the print out of my first assignment­­–to dr­aft a simple Complaint.  “What’s this?” asked Nora.  “My homework,” I responded.  “What’s it supposed to do?” she asked.  “Well, after you ignore the stuff on the first page in the little boxes, it’s supposed to tell the Court what happened and what my client wants the Court to do about it,” I explained. 

Nora read through the few pages in front of her once again.  “So­—Mother—I don’t want to hurt your feelings or anything, but just from reading this, I can’t tell what happened or what you want the judge to do for you.”  Thump.  Big Fat “F” from my own child.

“Really?”  I dug a bit further.  “You can’t tell from reading this that . . .?”

Nora interrupted with a big sigh.  “Mother, I have my own homework to do.  Can you just explain it to me?”  So I did.  I told Nora a story.  I constructed a narrative, including all the relevant facts and leaving out ones that didn’t matter, explaining who had done what to whom.  She interrupted with a few questions, which I noted.  I then explained what the party I was supposed to be representing wanted from the Court.

Nora tore my draft Complaint in two.  “Keep all your little boxes and numbers but throw the rest away.  Instead write down everything you just said.”  She was downright dismissive.  I protested, “But, Nora, I’m supposed to sound like I know what I’m talking about and be professional and all that.”

“That’s not what you said before,” said my judge, jury, and would-be executioner.  “You said you are supposed to tell the Court what happened and what my client wants the Court to do about it.  Is that right?”  I admitted it was.  “Well, the story you just told me did that ten times better than what you wrote down.  Write down the story.  If it doesn’t make sense to a smart person who knows you, it sure won’t make sense to anyone else.”

For a whole day I pondered Nora’s comments.  And another day to incorporate it into a presentable Complaint.  Hesitatingly, I showed it to Nora again.  She took her time.

“Almost perfect,” was the judgment.  “What’s wrong with it?” I inquired.  “You left out the black clothes.  The guy was wearing black clothes and it was night.  Remember I asked you about it?”  I remembered but had left it out of the simple story.

I changed a paragraph and submitted the Complaint as my assignment.  In red ink across the top when the assignment was returned was the comment, “Have you done this before?  This is perfect.”  Score 100 for Nora.

Since then I have clerked for an appellate court judge; taught writing classes of my own; written untold numbers of pleadings, motions, and briefs­—even opinions; spoken countless times on legal writing.  I always invoke the “Nora Rule.” 

Once I was asked by a more senior partner to write a comprehensive memo incorporating all the facts of a particular case.  The case was a multi-party securities fraud action that involved proceedings in multiple courts, a dozen or more defendents, 81 plaintiffs.  It had been to the Court of Appeals twice and landed back in front of the judge twice, after he thought he had dismissed it twice on summary judgment.  It’s one of those cases that you could never explain in a single conversation.  After I provided it to the partner, he took a week to mull it over.  Then it landed in a plop on my desk, “I hate this,” he said gruffly.  “It reads like a storybook.”

I laughed.  “Did I leave anything out?”—“No,” he conceded.

“Does the story make sense?”—“Yeah,” he shrugged.

“Could anyone in the English-speaking world pick up that document and understand what’s happened in this (by now) seven-year-old case and know what’s happened and where it now stands?”—“Sure.”

“Could you stomach reading it all the way through?”—“I guess.  Yeah, I did.  All in one sitting.  It’s pretty interesting—even if you’ve lived through it.”

“Then what in the world is wrong with it?”—He shrugged again.  “It reads like a storybook.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “It was meant to.”

So, to my now thirty-two year old linguist daughter, who was quite a brilliant nine-year-old, I now offer thanks for the “Nora rule”—the best writing lesson I have ever been taught by anyone, living or dead.

In shortest rendition, the “Nora” rule is: “If it doesn’t make sense to a quite bright nine-year-old, your legal work product isn’t good enough.”  If it’s written in legalese, rewrite it.  If it repeats anything, delete the repetition.  If it’s not written in short clear sentences, edit it.  If it’s too long, shorten it. 

In my opinion, the most captivating words in the English language are “Let me tell you a story.”  The “Nora rule” requires that every submission to a court tell a story.  It should lay out the facts in a way that captures the reader’s attention.  It should lay out the law, interwoven with the facts, as clearly and succinctly as it can.  And it should ask the Court for what you want.  In plainest terms.

“Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.”  See Matthew 21:16 (King James Version).  The “Nora Rule” RULES.

3 Responses to “A Family Goes to Harvard — the Nora Rule”

  1. David Chaumette April 14, 2012 at 9:48 am #

    I thought this was great. I am in the middle of summarizing one of those cases that has been around for 17 years and your message is incredibly timely.

    • kbhavener April 14, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

      Thanks, David. Always, always tell a story. Best, Kathleen

  2. Bill Smith November 1, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    That was great. I’m a professed rambler — thanks for the wake-up call! 🙂

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