In 1951, Chief Justice Arthur T. Vanderbilt, of the New Jersey Supreme Court, wrote to his friend Sidney Teiser, in Portland, Oregon, proposing that an informal group interested in legal history and biography get together at the next annual meeting of the American Bar Association. In San Francisco the next year, Teiser met with Edgar C. Knight, his editor at Lawyer’s Cooperative Publishing Company, and three prominent Southern lawyers — Walter P. Armstrong, John C. Satterfield, and Gibson B. Witherspoon.
That group sent letters inviting a select group of lawyers to dinner at the Harvard Club in Boston during the 1953 ABA annual meeting. The group also sent a draft of a constitution that Teiser had written. Thus, Scribes was founded. From the very beginning, Scribes brought together lawyers, judges, academics, publishers, and editors — all dedicated to improving legal writing.
Sidney Teiser included in the first constitution the following goals for the organization:
• to promote and foster a feeling of fraternity between those who write concerning the law, and particularly between those who are members of this organization;
• to seek to create an interest in writing about the law, substantive or procedural, about its origin,history, and philosophy, and about those who make, define, interpret, and enforce it;
• to endeavor to foster a clear, succinct, and forcible style in legal writing, whether the writing be in the form of
• to lend assistance and encouragement to those who write and to those who want to write on legal subjects;and
• to convey to the public an adequate and correct knowledge of the lawyer in the community, state, and nation, and to foster in the public mind a wholesome respect for the proper enforcement of the law and for the equal administration of justice.
During its first 20 years, the home of Scribes was wherever its president resided. Its staff was whatever staff the president could afford to devote to the organization. While Scribes had a constitution, a formal structure of officers, and a relatively extensive committee system, it had no repository for documents, no permanent management, and no staff dedicated solely to the interests of the association. Members had to be constantly reminded where to send communications and dues.
Scribes was, at first, unincorporated. But in the early 1970s, a small group of officers and members sought to put Scribes on a firmer footing. They stabilized Scribes by establishing its headquarters at the Wake Forest University School of Law. And on March 19, 1973, Scribes was incorporated in the State of North Carolina. Three years later, Scribes President Howard Oleck filed the papers necessary to make Scribes a nonprofit organization.
Kenneth Zick, a new librarian at Wake Forest, became corresponding secretary, an office that was retitled executive secretary, and finally executive director. Two administrators at Wake Forest, Kenneth Zick and Thomas Steele, handled managerial duties for the next 24 years.
Dues did not rise above $10 a year until the 1970s. In 1990, dues were raised from $25 to $50. In the early days, annual budgets rarely exceeded $2,000. Even in years with income above that amount, Scribes spent very little on operations. For clerical and bookkeeping support, $50 to $100 was appropriated, almost as honorariums.
In 1997, Thomas Steele resigned as executive director, and Glen-Peter Ahlers, of the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, took over. Headquarters were moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where they remained until 2002, when they moved Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Florida — where Professor Ahlers had been appointed an associate dean.
Conservative financial management characterized Scribes during its first 20 years, continued during the Wake Forest years, and continues to this day. Annual budgets rose from less than $5,000 during the early years to $25,000 by the end of the Wake Forest years. In 1988, Scribes first opened interest-bearing bank accounts and purchased six-month certificates of deposit.
In the late 1980s, under Roy Mersky’s leadership, Scribes began to seek and receive more donations from publishers, who underwrote the Scribes Journal, some of the annual award programs, and other Scribes events.
Sidney Teiser, founder of Scribes, served for the first four years as president. For the next 20 years, a group of charter members dominated the officer and board positions. Eugene Gerhart, of Binghampton, New York, for example, succeeded Teiser in 1957–1958 and served again as president in 1970–1971. Charter members Edgar Knight, of Rochester, New York, and Milton Backman, of Lansing, Michigan, served long terms — Knight serving as secretary for 10 years and Backman as treasurer for 11 years. While Teiser and Gerhart were the only presidents to serve multiple terms, their administrations covered about one-third of the nomadic period.
The Wake Forest years were also marked, at first, by annual changes in the president but by remarkable consistency in other officer and board positions. Several members served even longer than Knight and Backman. Both Roy Mersky and Edward Re served as officers and board members for over 25 years each. Harry Gershenson, of St. Louis, Missouri, served as president in 1959–1960 and as a board member for over 30 years.
In the mid 1980s, under the leadership of Rudolph C. Hasl, the board proposed that the presidential term of one year be doubled. The membership approved the change in 1986 at the annual meeting in New York. Beginning with Roger Billings’s term in 1987, presidents have served for two years. Lynne Iannelli and Mariana Smith served as the first female presidents, in 1993 and 1995, respectively.
Three presidents have completed two-year terms since the move from Wake Forest:
1997–1999: Bryan Garner, of Dallas, Texas, a nationally recognized legal-writing expert and the author of numerous books on legal writing and the founding editor and then editor-in-chief of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing.
1999–2001: Gary Spivey, of Albany, New York, the New York State Reporter and a long-time, active Scribes board member.
2001–2003: Donald Dunn, Dean of the University of La Verne College of Law in Ontario, California.
In August 2003, Beverly Ray Burlingame, of Dallas, Texas became the 40th president of Scribes. A member of the original editorial team of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, Burlingame followed what has become a pattern for all recent Scribes presidents — hard work as a member and a committee member, followed by years of active service on the board before being elected president.
The membership of Scribes at its initial meeting stood at 38. Membership grew quickly: There were 41 members in 1953, 92 members in 1955, 123 members in 1958, 247 members in 1961, and more than 550 members by 1969. In early 1971, Scribes membership had grown to 700.
In the early 1990s, Scribes became an ABA-affiliated organization, which required it to have 1,000 members, of whom at least 500 were also ABA members.
In 1990, Roy Mersky championed institutional memberships for law schools. During 1990, 13 law schools become institutional members. In 2003, that number had risen to 17. Institutional members now number 25, including two appellate courts — the Alaska Appellate Courts and the Michigan Court of Appeals.
For many years, Scribes has held its annual membership meeting in August, during the ABA Annual Meeting. At this meeting, which is usually a luncheon meeting, Scribes presents its annual Book Award and Brief-Writing Award. In recent years, the notable keynote speakers at this meeting have included Judge Richard Posner, of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and Judge John T. Noonan, of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In some years, Scribes has also held breakfast meetings during the midwinter ABA meeting. The Scribes Board of Directors holds one annual meeting, in the spring of each year.
An early Scribes publication was Advocacy and the King’s English, edited by Justice George Rossman of the Oregon Supreme Court. Published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1960, this book was a compilation of the winners of an early ABA award program. The book sold well and provided Scribes with modest royalty income. Scribes has also published a style manual developed by its first secretary, Edgar Knight, and a legal-writing manual by Howard Oleck.
President Sidney Bernstein first proposed a Scribes review at the 1972 annual meeting. In 1987, the board began discussing plans to establish a scholarly journal of legal writing. Under the leadership of Roy Mersky, at the University of Texas School of Law, the journal began, funded by West Publishing Company, which for several years donated all printing and distribution costs. The board selected Bryan Garner, then a young law professor at the University of Texas School of Law, as editor in chief of the Journal, and vested him with total editorial control.
The first issue of The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing was published in 1990, with an initial circulation of 3,000 copies. In addition to Scribes members, the Journal was sent to all federal appellate-court judges, all state supreme court justices, and many law-school libraries and deans. The Index to Legal Periodicals and the Current Law Index began indexing the Journal with the second issue, published in 1991. In 2002, Joseph Kimble, of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, took over as editor in chief of the Journal. In recent years, the Journal has been funded by Matthew-Bender and by Thomas M. Cooley Law School
An early publication designed to inform members about Scribes was The News, which provided membership and organizational news. It was the precursor of a newsletter that followed in the 1970s, The Scrivener, which has been published more or less regularly since 1974. In addition to providing membership and organizational news, The Scrivener now provides substantive pieces on legal writing and legal-writing tips. Recently, publishers such as LEXIS/NEXIS have helped underwrite the cost of The Scrivener.
In 1997, Scribes established its presence on the Internet through its website, which is now at www.scribes.org.
As early as 1957, Scribes presented an award for the best article in the Journal of the American Bar Association. This award was replaced in 1961 with the Scribes Book Award, which has been awarded annually since then. Notable recent winners of this award include Lawrence M. Friedman, in 2003, for American Law in the 20th Century and Jonathon Harr, in 1996, for A Civil Action.
For several years in the 1950s and 1960s, Scribes gave an opinion-writing award to law students in conjunction with the Conference on Personal Finance Law and the American Law Student Organization. That award provided a framework for the Scribes Brief-Writing Award, which began in 1993. Currently, this award goes to the one brief selected as the best from the winning briefs chosen at about 40 annual student moot-court competitions.
In 1987, President Roger Billings and Kenneth Zick helped create the Scribes Law-Review Award. Each year since then, the editors of law reviews have submitted the best student-written article published in their journals. The Law-Review Award is presented at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Law Reviews.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Scribes provided a pool of speakers to talk to law students about legal writing. During the mid-1970s, Scribes speakers spoke at conferences and workshops in several different cities. In 1975, Scribes further developed and extended its speakers’ programs into a legal-writing institute. The first institute was held at St. John’s University Law School and attracted several top speakers and over 200 attendees. From 1975 through 1996, Scribes held eight institutes, most in New York City. Chief Judge Re, of the Court of International Trade, Scribes president in 1978–1979, and Dean Margaret Bearn, of New York Law School, Scribes president in 1983–1984, were the driving forces behind the institutes.
In August 2003, at the annual ABA meeting, Scribes co-sponsored a seminar titled “Motion Potion: How to Write Better Pleadings.” Michael Hyman, of Chicago, a Scribes member and long-time chair of the Book Award Committee, planned the program and served as moderator and panelist.
In August 2004, Scribes again co-sponsored a writing seminar, this time on legal drafting. Michael Hyman, who now serves on the Scribes Board of Directors, again served as planner and moderator