Lawyers Journal

Some thoughts on professionalism and craft

In 1973, when I started out as a lawyer, being a professional seemed to me to be taken for granted. The culture was that you behaved in a certain way simply because you were a lawyer. If you did not adhere to that culture, there always was someone to remind you to do so, either an older lawyer with whom you worked or some other lawyer. Being a professional was paramount. Being a lawyer was not just a job.

It is safe to say that culture has changed a bit over the last 39 years. Professional associations like the MBA and its affiliated bar associations are not simply trade associations. While bar associations sometimes perform functions similar to those of trade associations, bar associations are and should be committed to enhancing professionalism. A "profession" is "an occupation that properly involves a liberal, scientific, or artistic education." [Definition is from Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary, the dictionary closest to my computer.] The word "education" in the definition of "profession" is important. As lawyers, we need to continue our education, honing our craft (another interesting word, which means generally, "skill or proficiency"). This education must include keeping current on the law relevant to our practice areas and enhancing our analytical skills, as well as our drafting and advocacy.

With the foregoing in mind, I recall an earlier life, before law school, when I worked as a copywriter for Life magazine in New York City. I was the "cub" copywriter (the other folks in my department put a nameplate on my office door declaring me as such) in the circulation promotion department which functioned in many ways like an in-house advertising agency. The other copywriter, artists and I prepared various types of advertising and promotional materials for Life and a number of other Time, Inc. divisions. One of my jobs every week was to write the "teaser" cover flap copy for newsstand copies of Life. This was not considered a top assignment in my department and thus devolved to me as the "cub" copywriter. Every Monday at 11 a.m. I attended a meeting presided over by Marian MacPhail, one of Life's editors and the sister of the baseball brothers MacPhail who ran the Yankees at that time. The meeting was for the purpose of telling the promotion and advertising people what was in that week's issue about to be published. Frequently, some very notable people were present, who were to be featured in Life. I saw Dean Rusk and Norman Mailer, among others, at these meetings. It was a heady experience for a cub of 23. Following the meeting, my job was to draft the cover flap "teaser" copy, which had to be approved by my copy chief and the head of my department. Thereafter, it had to be approved by one of the two assistant managing editors of Life and then the managing editor. All of this had to be done by a 3 p.m. deadline that day. I was usually done with my drafting by 1 or 1:30 p.m., and my affable copy chief and even more affable department head almost always gave me a figurative pat on the head, approving my work without changes. Only after the first few times this happened did I realize why they did that.

My department was on the 32nd floor of the Time-Life building, and editorial was on the 34th floor. With some trepidation, I would head to the 34th floor to my first stop, the assistant managing editor. There were two, as I noted, and I will not name names, because one was - how shall I put this delicately - "less than affable," while the other was what we might term "a prince of a fellow." I usually had to deal with the less-than-affable fellow. My experience with him, for those of you who are Seinfeld fans, was a bit like dealing with the "soup Nazi." I would stand at the entrance to his office after being allowed in for the sole purpose of handing him the copy I had prepared. It was never acceptable. The blue penciling was a sight to behold, with my original copy - as approved by my department bosses - totally obscured by that assistant managing editor's changes. Armed with those changes and chastened by the disdain he exhibited toward my handiwork, I then would repair to the managing editor's office, the estimable Ralph Graves, who would proceed to change everything the assistant managing editor had done. Like my experience with the assistant managing editor, I would stand at the door to Mr. Graves' office, approaching his desk only twice, once to hand the already edited copy and then to get it back after he had re-written it. (By the way, when I occasionally dealt with the other assistant managing editor, he, like my department bosses, simply said nice work and sent me to Mr. Graves' office, knowing full well that Mr. Graves was going to re-write everything anyway.)

These writing and editing dance steps at Life magazine went on for about a year. Those of you old enough to remember seeing newsstand copies of Life in the late 1960s will recall the cover flaps. There were not many words. The few there were had been massaged greatly, as I have described. (To give you an idea of one I remember, in particular, there was a cover story about Bebe Rebozo, friend of, advisor to and fundraiser for Richard Nixon. I wrote - this one miraculously survived the editing process mostly intact - "Bebe Rebozo: businessman, bon vivant and Nixon's best friend.")

I tell this story because I believe it says something useful about professionalism and craft. Even though I frequently did not like the changes made to my copy, I learned much about attention to detail and getting the words right from the perspective of the people with responsibility for the end product. The process involved caused very few words to get a great deal of attention.

We lawyers cannot always devote all the time to a matter we would like. Yet we have to make our best efforts to get right whatever it is we are doing, even if it is only a few words. That is professionalism. We should remind ourselves and each other that that is what we are about.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association