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Guido Calabresi Receives Lifetime Achievement Award for Legal Writing

The career output of Guido Calabresi, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law, Professorial Lecturer in Law and judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, amounts to over 100 articles, nearly 800 opinions of varying lengths, and four books--in other words, a heavy load of paper.

When Calabresi was informed that Scribes, the American Society of Writers on Legal Subjects, would bestow their Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on him, he says that one of the first thoughts he had was that he was being recognized for this quantity alone. He was reminded of the famous epitaph for Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect of several gargantuan edifices: "Lie heavy on him, earth, for he/ Laid many a heavy load on thee!"

But Calabresi's writing as both a jurist and a legal scholar has been as influential as it has been prolific. Among Calabresi's classic works of legal writing are a 1961 article, "Some Thoughts on Risk Distribution and the Law of Torts," and a 1970 book, The Cost of Accidents: A Legal and Economic Analysis, both seminal to the field of law and economics--and later works on a breadth of subjects, such as A Common Law for the Age of Statutes, and Ideals, Beliefs, Attitudes and the Law. The ideas he has raised are cited hundreds of times each year in legal journals.

Calabresi points out that the obligations of a legal writer are very particular--and less concerned with style than with substance. He contrasts his priorities with the literary view of poet W.H. Auden: "Auden's notion was that writers, poets, were pardoned for their views because they wrote well... That's all very well, but it doesn't work for judges. We have to get it right. And if we get it right we will be pardoned even if we don't write well."

Calabresi says that a writer such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., though a witty stylist, could raise confusion. Calabresi mentions one of Holmes's most recognizable lines: " The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic." "What help is it? And how many bad decisions have followed from this clever quip?" asks Calabresi.

He cites Henry Friendly as an antithetical type of writer, who, though complicated and laborious, "always works the thing out, and if you read it, you know what was meant." But Calabresi adds, "Now, obviously, if you can do both, that is terrific."

Calabresi begins writing with an effort to keep the clarity of ideas foremost. "I first think about the law and think about what the correct result is. And then I try to express it in a way that is clear, lucid, and understandable by anyone who cares to pay attention to it--it is designed not just for an audience of highly skilled people."

There are challenges, however, on the way between the first word and a finished piece. First is "the great temptation to say something which sounds great, but which actually messes up the law.... We should avoid it above all things." And, Calabresi says that the "final temptation" is that of writing "a great dissent or a great separate concurring opinion, where you can really let yourself go and write for history.... Our job as judges is to try to make the case come out properly."

Despite a lifetime spent doing it, Calabresi still finds writing "very hard work and very lonely work." On the other hand, Calabresi adds, "I'm usually pleased when I'm done. [Then] I'm usually displeased when I reread something that I've done just after it comes out. And I must say ... many years later, I usually say, 'Hey, you know, this is nice.'"


[Calabresi received his award at the Scribes Annual Luncheon, held concurrently with the ABA Annual Meeting held last week in Washington, DC. Two other awards were presented to YLS faculty and programs at the ABA meeting, and more detailed descriptions of them will be available through the @YLS website in the coming weeks.]