by Justice William W. Bedsworth
In that iconic scene from The Paper Chase, John Housman tells his law school students he’s going to teach them to think. “You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.” And with the penmanship of a drunken chicken with a quill strapped to his leg.
At least that was my experience. If my skull was full of mush when I arrived for my first contracts class, my hand was full of it when I walked out of third-year Conflict of Laws.
In exchange for being taught to think like a lawyer, I was required to give up my ability to write like a human being. My handwriting, perfectly legible since the seventh grade, turned into a weird cuneiform that defied decipherment by all but a small handful of bemused loved ones and devoted secretaries whose dedication and determination I now publicly acknowledge.
If you’ve ever been subjected to the personal and quirky collection of abbreviated hieroglyphs that make up my longhand,1 you know that, had it not been for the invention of word processing, I would have been murdered by a typist before I reached fifty.
Generations of assistants went bald tearing their hair out trying to decode my essays. People who had made a secretarial living for decades ran screaming from the room and immediately filed retirement papers upon finding out they had been assigned to type my briefs.
Law school did that to me.
I am a smart guy. The first twenty years of my education were a breeze. If you could make a living taking standardized tests, I’d be living in Shady Canyon today.
The only things I found difficult to learn were handling a knife and fork (age 2) and Algebra II (age 16). I was motivated to learn the first, so I kept at it, and I simply abandoned the second, replacing it with a business law class. Easy peasy.
So I waltzed through college in three years and arrived in Berkeley for law school with clear and distinctive handwriting. I had a wonderful aunt whose handwriting was unusual and immediately identifiable, and I had self-consciously copied it while I was in high school. It was unique in style yet easily readable.
But when I got to law school, I was confronted for the first time since factoring quadratic equations with really difficult stuff. And this time I couldn’t bail out into business law; the hard stuff WAS business law.
The concepts were complicated, sometimes labyrinthine. I found myself taking notes like crazy, my fat little fingers racing across the page like frantic hamsters desperately trying to reach the safety of the lecture’s end.
“Fee simple absolute?” What kind of syntax is that? Noun, adjective, adjective? Who constructs figures of speech like that? Where else in Anglo-Saxon human experience is a noun followed by two adjectives?
“Negative pregnant?” I’d worried enough about backseat recklessness in high school to understand that a pregnancy could be a very negative thing, but this seemed to be a whole different concept.
“Littoral?” You mean literal? “Riparian?” This is something different from a mature pear, right?
“Writ of supersedeas?” Aw, c’mon, now you’re just making shit up.
While my mind was racing trying to keep up, my fingers were falling hopelessly behind. They were in danger of being lapped by the thoughts falling so glibly from the mouths of my apparently Croatian professors, speaking in what I took to be their native tongue.
Three years of this and my handwriting looked like an EKG readout. I had learned about the music of the spheres but I had no way of expressing it on paper. My paragraphs could just as easily have come with a treble clef at the beginning to indicate which hand was meant to play them.
I met a woman in the District Attorney’s Office. We dated. One day she passed me a note that gave me choices for the dinner she was going to cook. I wrote back that I would like the veal. My handwriting was so bad that her response said, “I love you, too.” Next thing I knew, I was married.
I wrote my son a note for school asking that he be excused from gym class. A terrified teacher gave him all her money and told the principal to watch out for his gun.
Alright, the last two paragraphs are fiction, but let me tell you a true story about how bad my handwriting became. In an incident that became legendary in the District Attorney’s Office, I wrote a brief in which I referred to the facts of the case as “a striking example of the application of our laws regarding constructive possession.” My secretary dutifully transcribed my handwritten thoughts, and I failed to proof the finished product carefully.
Two days later, Judge Williams called my boss to compliment him on having hired a deputy who was “willing to call a spade, a spade.”2 He told Mr. Hicks how impressed he was that I had “owned up to the fact that his case is a stinking example of the way we stretch the fiction of constructive possession in this state. But that’s the law, and I followed it, so you won.” The “stinking example brief” is still used in some quarters to teach the importance of proofreading.3
Had it not been for the savant who invented word processing—and Presiding Justice David Sills, who insisted I learn to do it when I sat on assignment at the Court of Appeal—my career probably would have foundered before I got to the Fourth District, Division 3.4
Instead, I got my dream job, and while many of you still complain I’m saying dumb stuff, you have to admit I’m saying it legibly.5
Not that word processing is a day at the beach. Before we take the bench here, my colleagues and I assemble to discuss the morning calendar in a room behind the courtroom. It’s called the robing room. But every time I try to type that phrase, my spellcheck program changes it to “robbing room.” Hard not to see that as a value judgment.
And I have some kind of weird reverse Midas touch when it comes to computers. My mere touch can turn a keyboard a substance other than gold. I am constantly calling my IT guys to report that I have somehow hit a combination of letters or symbols that has caused my keyboard to switch to the Cyrillic alphabet, or flood my screen with information about the Brazil Bovespa Stock Index, or erase all files opened in February.
I’m so adept at finding unintended shortcuts that I type in constant fear of opening a portal to a parallel universe.6
But as dangerous as word-processing is, it has not yet caused anyone to give me all her money or profess undying love for me. A pity. But at least after fifty years in this business, I have conquered legibility.
In my next fifty, I plan to go after correctness. I believe a judicial career should be approached with circumspection. I’m taking it one step at a time.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. A Criminal Waste of Space won Best Column in California in 2018 from the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA). And look for his latest book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Vandeplas Publishing. He can be contacted at email@example.com.