Author, historian, and journalist Evan Thomas was afforded unprecedented access to the personal and professional life of a Supreme Court Justice to write his authoritative biography of the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. In this episode of the State Bar of Texas Podcast, host Rocky Dhir talks to the New York Times bestselling author about what he learned writing First: Sandra Day O’Connor. Evan shares anecdotes and lessons learned from his deep dive into her work and private life.
Evan Willing Thomas III is a journalist, historian, and author. He is the author of ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. He has taught at Harvard and Princeton and, for 20 years, was a regular panelist on Inside Edition, a weekly public affairs TV show.
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State Bar of Texas Podcast
The Life and Lessons of Sandra Day O’Connor
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Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice, with your host, Rocky Dhir.
Rocky Dhir: Hi and welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast. We have all heard the adage that lawyers are storytellers, whether it be with agreements, pleadings, or briefs serving as our storytelling media, but what happens when the lawyer becomes the story? Well, when that happens we need a different kind of storyteller.
Evan Thomas is a writer and journalist who has reported and edited for the likes of TIME and Newsweek. I think he knows how to tell a story. He also taught writing at Harvard and Princeton.
Evan is the author of ‘First’, the biography of Sandra Day O’Connor. As we all know, the first woman to be nominated and confirmed to serve as a justice on the United States Supreme Court. Evan has been kind enough to join us today from his base in Washington D.C.
Evan, welcome. Thanks for being here.
Evan Thomas: Thanks for having me.
Rocky Dhir: Absolutely. So Evan, first of all, let’s talk about you. It sounds like you have had a pretty storied life yourself reporting for TIME and Newsweek. How did you get into journalism, tell us a little bit about your background and the work you have done. I mean you must have met some really interesting people along the way.
Evan Thomas: Well, I went to law school, to the University of Virginia Law School, but I decided I wanted to be a journalist and not a lawyer. So I got a job at TIME Magazine covering the law and wrote about the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, but then drifted into politics and covered Congress and political campaigns and became the Washington Bureau Chief of Newsweek and I did that for ten years, and then became Assistant Managing Editor and then an Editor-at-Large.
Basically, I really liked that, really. I wrote more than 100 cover stories for Newsweek, drawing from other people’s reporting; wars, elections, all sorts of stuff, sometimes the law, but typically not.
Meanwhile, I wrote a lot of books, ‘The Wise Men’ with Walter Isaacson, biographies of Bobby Kennedy and Nixon and Eisenhower and a book about World War II called ‘Sea of Thunder’. I wrote 10 books, and so this is my 10th book. This came to me because Sandra Day O’Connor thought about doing her memoirs and I was briefly considered as a ghostwriter for them, but I could tell talking to her that she didn’t really want to do it. In any case, she got dementia. She started to get Alzheimer’s, so her family decided let’s do this as a biography and that’s how this book began.
Rocky Dhir: Do you know how they found you?
Evan Thomas: I was the author with a law degree who was working with her editor, Kate Medina at Random House. Random House was her publisher for the ‘Lazy B’. I had done Random House books with her before. The family did go down a list of historians and sort of checked me out a little bit and then they came to me and said would you do this, and I said sure.
Rocky Dhir: So it’s interesting, you said you were the writer with the law degree, so it sounds like going to law school actually helped you land the gig, if I am hearing you correctly?
Evan Thomas: It did. I don’t want to pretend that I know more law than I actually do, because when I went to UVA, that was a long time ago, 1974, but importantly, I took constitutional law from J. Harvie Wilkinson, who is a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge and a really great teacher. The only thing I really remembered from law school, but I did remember it was the Fourteenth Amendment and that’s a lot of what Supreme Court justices do, at least in the cases that are memorable and the cases that matter, so that’s where the action is.
The idea of strict scrutiny, that kind of thing, that was not a foreign concept to me, so that was important to me. Also my wife, Osceola, who I met in civil procedure class at UVA, she was a longtime lawyer and she worked with me on this book. We had access to the Justices’ papers; this is an important thing, because if you are writing about a Supreme Court justice, yes, justices justify themselves by their opinions, but a lot of what they do is secret, and we were given — she wrote a letter to her fellow beings, she wrote a letter to her clerks and to her colleagues asking that they talk to us. So we interviewed 94 of her 108 law clerks.
Rocky Dhir: Really? Wow.
Evan Thomas: And we interviewed seven justices, and we had access to all of her court papers for the first 10 years, until there was a sitting justice, in this case Justice Thomas. So we had a lot of exposure to the actual work product. We also had her diary and we had her husband’s diary. That was a lot of material.
Rocky Dhir: I notice that in the book there are many points at which you write about what her diary entries say and then you kind of juxtapose that with what may have been said publicly.
So for example, there is a point in the book where you are describing her confirmation process or the process of where she got appointed and got confirmed, and there is this one story I remember vividly kind of noting where she was visited by a couple of Justice Department lawyers; I think it was Ken Starr and Jonathan Rose, and at the end of it John O’Connor, Justice O’Connor’s husband tells her look, I think — it sounds like this thing is wrapped up. And Justice O’Connor said yeah, I agree. But then years later when she is reciting the story of her appointment, she expresses a lot of surprise at the fact that she was ultimately elevated to the Supreme Court.
So it sounds like you did a very lawyerly thing. You found a possible contradiction or maybe just a difference in memory. It was interesting that you were able to juxtapose that.
Evan Thomas: Just as you say, trial lawyers deal with this all the time, where you have evidence from different quarters and it’s not consistent. In this case we have a contemporaneous document, her husband’s diary, quoting her, and yet in the story that she tells she goes — a week later goes to Washington and she sees the President, even after the interview, she gets on the plane and she thinks, no way, I am not going to get this job. Well, how do you square her recollection years later of her saying that she got on the plane and gee, I don’t believe I am going to get this job with the contemporaneous document. This is a problem that juries can find all the time.
So here is the way I deal with this.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Evan Thomas: I think it’s absolutely — I am sure that O’Connor — the husband said you are in, and I am sure she agreed with him, but people operate on many levels. You know this in your own life.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Evan Thomas: What you may know to be true in the moment, you sort of can’t quite believe. She is a woman who has been — all her life had to overcome tremendous obstacles. She was at the top of her class at Stanford Law School and she applies to 40 law firms, she gets one interview and they ask her how well she can type; it’s for a legal secretary job. So all of her life she has had to beat her head.
So come the moment when she is about to be elevated to the Supreme Court, she really can’t quite believe it. Even though she knows it objectively to be true, somewhere in her heart she just can’t believe it. So I don’t think it actually is inconsistent; I think it’s just — I don’t think she is telling a different tale; I think she just saw this on two levels. I think it’s extremely human.
Rocky Dhir: It was interesting too, with the visit from Ken Starr and Jonathan Rose, and I have to compliment you on this, you did a great job of reciting this meeting, where they come in and they are sitting on twin couches, facing one another and John O’Connor is sitting next to Sandra Day O’Connor. And then she gets up and I think the words from the journal, from John O’Connor’s journal was that she got up and she fixed lunch, and here in Texas we say fixed lunch all the time, so she went and fixed lunch. She comes out with a salmon mousse that apparently just absolutely floored Starr and Rose.
And so there was another kind of interesting juxtaposition and I guess maybe that seems to be the theme of her life. There are these interesting kind of, at least what appear to be, contradictions. On the one hand, she is expressing her disbelief at her being elevated and then on the other hand she is telling her husband, yeah, I think we got this wrapped.
And then you kind of take a parallel, where on the one hand she is this progressive, ahead of her time woman, who is, as you said, top of her class at Stanford, she is a justice in Arizona, she had been a legislator, she is obviously a very accomplished woman, especially for that time, and then she is going and she is fixing lunch. How do you square that?
Evan Thomas: Well, I will tell you an anecdote. In the very small world of Washington, as it happens, in church I often sit next to John Rose, who is one of the 00:09:36 boards, and he first told me this story and I just couldn’t believe it. He said I couldn’t — John Rose is a 65-year-old Harvard Law School educated, big time lawyer in Washington now, and he said I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that she makes a salmon mousse. He was as kind of astonished as you were.
And it’s just that she liked to confound her — what’s the expression, confound your enemies; they are not enemies, but she — I think it gave her a kind of secret pleasure to show these guys that she could talk about constitutional law all morning, on the fine points of the law and get up and whip out a great lunch. She is doing that, she is showing off, she is doing that on purpose.
The important thing, she knows, I think instinctively, without it ever having to be spelled out that Ronald Reagan does not want a flaming feminist as the first justice on the Supreme Court. He wants a traditional woman, who is also a brilliant lawyer. He wants somebody who is both, and she has been able to do that all her life. She valued things that we associate with gender roles, I guess is what we associate with women, being a good cook and taking care of people, all those kind of conventional things, those were important to her.
When she became a Supreme Court justice, every Saturday she would meet with her law clerks; each justice has four law clerks and they would discuss their bench memos, how do we get a vote on this case. She would make them lunch beforehand, Tex-Mex. She would make them pots of chili.
Again, on the Supreme Court and this is actually really important. When she gets to the US Supreme Court, the court has lunch usually once a week and she gets there and only four other justices even show up for lunch.
Rocky Dhir: I love this story, yeah.
Evan Thomas: Well, where is everybody? Now, this is 1981, the book ‘The Brethren’ has just come out, written by Bob Woodward, an exposé of the Supreme Court. The justices don’t trust each other. They are not sure who the linker is.
And also, in the Supreme Court, your listeners will understand these, these guys don’t all get along; in those days all guys. They are appointed for life, they kind of have to get along, but that doesn’t mean they like each other.
Rocky Dhir: They communicated via memo, right, not by speech.
Evan Thomas: They are not hanging around in the halls talking to each other, but one thing memos, and again, your lawyer audience will appreciate this, a written memo is more precise. You use words of art, right? So there is less misunderstanding than there is by conversation. That’s I think the main reason why they talked by memo.
But also, it’s a very formal place, and again, they are not all pals. Now, she understood that, she was not pals with all of them either, but she made them, I love this detail, she made them come to lunch. She would show up in their chambers; Justice Sotomayor told me that she learned about this, she would show up in their chambers before lunch and just sit there until they came. And by the 1990s she had them all coming to lunch.
Now, at lunch they are not talking cases, they are talking sports, novels, literature, but they get to know each other a little bit and it’s just a much better way that she understood the need for civility, she understood the need for civil relations between the justices and she brought that to the court. You could say that’s a woman’s thing, well, okay, maybe it is, but whatever it is, it worked.
Rocky Dhir: I am sort of struck by the irony of you and I, two guys talking about feminism, especially in the 1980s. I am sure somebody is going to pick up on that and say where did the two of you get off talking about feminism, but —
Evan Thomas: Well, listen, I appreciate the irony of this and also the awkwardness of it. As I mentioned earlier, my wife was deeply involved in writing this book. She has always helped me on my books, but more in this one, because look, she is a woman and she understood. In many ways, my wife Osceola went to Stanford, is from the west, from California, she instinctively understood Justice O’Connor better than I did and that’s one reason why she was so good.
If you read the book and read the acknowledgments, I effusively thank her and I am not just laying it on, I really needed her because, just as you pointed out, what are a couple of guys doing trying to explain feminism in the 1980s; well, my wife understood it.
Rocky Dhir: Well, I guess maybe it’s also important, because ultimately it was a roomful of guys who nominated her to the Supreme Court and helped usher her in. So as you look back, and maybe this is an unfair question given that we are a couple of guys and what do we know about this, but when you look at the issues like feminism and now, especially in the law, we are trying very hard to improve diversity and inclusion and get a broader spectrum of our society represented at the highest echelons of the legal practice.
So what do you think was the key maybe at that time? I know President Reagan had campaigned on getting a woman to be a Supreme Court justice and he took that very seriously and that’s why his first nomination right out the gate was a woman and it turned out to be Sandra Day O’Connor, so he made a very good choice, but how do you think these movements, like feminism or trying to eradicate racism, how do those sort of take foot and how do they sort of build up in crescendo versus maybe other movements that don’t quite take on the same center stage in our society?
Evan Thomas: Yeah. I mean it’s very hard to change norms and sort of just off the top of my head here a couple of things. One way is like a war, is to just smash through, break down the walls. Some of your listeners will remember Bella Abzug, the wave of feminism of the late 60s and early 70s, some of those kind of pretty direct frontal assaults; burning your bra, that sounds kind of creepy and weird now, but that was — they talked about the women’s lib and bra burners and all that, and it was very kind of a frontal assault. Now, that was offensive to a lot of people. It worked in a way, it got people’s attention, and so it’s important, but of course it bred a reaction.
People will also remember Phyllis Schlafly and the backlash that occurred in the 70s and that’s how the Moral Majority gets going partly.
So these frontal assaults, every revolution creates a counterrevolution. That’s the risk of the frontal assault, but there is another approach and that’s much more incremental and sort of one step, and Justice O’Connor is more in the second group, where she realizes that you can create more trouble for yourself by not being kind of shrewd and incremental.
I will give you an example, an important example. When she is at the Arizona State Legislature, the Equal Rights Amendment is coming up, and this is almost noncontroversial in the late 60s, but to amend the Constitution, you have to have, I guess what, two-thirds of the states, and it looks like it’s going to pass. It gets to Arizona and Justice O’Connor introduces — she is in legislature, she introduces it, and then she is the majority leader, first ever woman majority leader anywhere, she lets it die in committee. Why, because she knows it’s not going to pass.
And instead — so she is being practical, of course the feminists feel betrayed by her, what are you doing, you selling out to get a judgeship, why are you letting this die? Her response is, she does it locally, she uses her power to change every single statute in the State of Arizona that has a gender discriminatory aspect to it. There are dozens of them. She does all that locally because she can get that done. She is being practical.
Instead of breaking her pick on the ERA, which was going to lose on the Floor, which might make her feel good and get on cable; they didn’t have cable TV then, but put on a big show, instead she is practical, let’s do this locally, and that’s very much her, do it incrementally, do it locally, step by step, don’t make unnecessary enemies, but get it done.
Rocky Dhir: Another story I read in the book, and by the way, I have to — I promise the listeners, you did not pay me to say this, but the book is very well written. I have got to compliment you on this, and I guess I am sort of beaming with pride at the fact that you went to law school, so I like to think that maybe the legal training had something to do with it, but I love the story in that.
Evan Thomas: Well, it does, it does. I mean people forget about — one thing about legal training, teaches you how to get to the point and I have found my legal training to be invaluable.
Rocky Dhir: And it was interesting, there was this one story you told in there about how when she was majority leader in the Arizona Legislature, she would host these; they weren’t really barbecues, but there were these social functions where she would ply the members of both parties with Mexican food and as she put it beer, lots and lots of beer, and she would bring them together and try to break down barriers that way and a lot of times that would lead to compromise that otherwise might not happen if everybody just stayed entrenched in their respective camps.
So it sounds like this incremental approach is something that either was kind of — it was just part of her or it’s something she learned along the way.
Evan Thomas: I think it’s both. I mean you always look to somebody’s early years and their childhood. Her father, who was a cattle rancher; she grew up on a cattle ranch of 160,000 acres.
Rocky Dhir: Right, the Lazy B.
Evan Thomas: The Lazy B, and that’s a tough male world, and her dad was a tough man, a man’s man, and kind of a brute force guy in a way; well, actually that’s not quite right, but he was a strong personality. Her mother was very feminine, very feminine, and always wore — even in the dusty ranch, always wore dresses and hose and fancy shoes and subscribed to Vogue and all that.
She learned from both of them, she learned from her father how to be practical and tough and stoical and self-reliant. From her mom though, she learnt — her dad was a bit of a boy and he have a drink or two at night and go kind of try to provoke her mom, and her mom was very deft about it.
She wasn’t passive but she didn’t get into stupid fights. She avoided ego fights with him and Sandra learned from watching her mother how to not take the bait, not be provoked, not get into dumb chess budding, ego budding fights, but just walk away from the stupid fights, pick your fights, and she would, it was in a Legislature, I love this story.
She did have a nemesis, a guy named Goodwin who was a drunk who seemed to be House Appropriations Committee Chairman but a drunk by 10:00 a.m. drunk. She calls him on and he says, ah man, if you were a man, I would have punched you in the nose, and she said, if you were a man you could.
So what she needed to be she could be pretty sharp, ouch, but that was a rare, that story — I loved to tell that story but that’s actually a one-off, that’s really not what she usually did. She usually worked around the problem.
Rocky Dhir: It almost sounds, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like the way you’ve written first and the way you’ve described O’Connor, and honestly I can’t tell which of these it is, I can’t tell if you’re just trying to tell the story as it is or if you’re trying to give us a lesson in civility and how to get things done in a more effective way, maybe for our generation and future generations, which of those would it be, is it column A or column B or some combination?
Evan Thomas: Both, I mean the cliché for a journalist is show, don’t tell. So I’m not delivering a lecture here on how you — I’m not wagging my finger by good manners, my manners aren’t very good. I wish I have followed the rules that Justice O’Connor followed, but I am trying to tell a story that has a moral and the moral is at least in her life, you get further with honey, with getting — there’s millions of examples of this that compromise and listening. When she listened to people, her whole body would grow still. She was really listening.
Rocky Dhir: Interesting.
Evan Thomas: Now, thank, God she could be bossy, she could be bossy and abrupt and kind of imperious. People are complicated, we all are and she was, but she was a very effective person. I mean, the record tells why. 25 years on the court she was the swing vote in 330 cases, that’s a lot of power. And she liked it, she’d know how to exercise it.
Rocky Dhir: Where did she learn how to exercise power? Was that again from her father or was that from her work as a lawyer?
Evan Thomas: I think it’s all those. I mean her father was like a king on that ranch. The cowboys would look to him. There was no law except for the law that Mr. Day, her maiden name was Day, Mr. Day handed down. So she learns that, she learns it stamp which he takes a course called Western civilization.
They no longer teach that course, I’m sorry to say because there’s considered to be too patriarchal and hegemonic and all that politically incorrect stuff, but it was great for her because she learned about the rule of law and Adams, Jefferson and Madison, she really learned that stuff.
So she really learns about civic engagement in college at Stanford Law School, she’s the topper of her class and she’s learning, she’s always learning. In the Legislature, she’s learning how to compromise, how to deal with idiots like that guy Goodwin, how to be a woman in a man’s world. All these are lessons that she is constantly learning.
Rocky Dhir: Do you think she would be considered a feminist today? If Sandra Day O’Connor were a contemporary of these times, do you think she would still be considered a feminist or do you think making salmon mousse and fixing Tex-Mex would be antithetical to that today?
Evan Thomas: She is a little puzzling that way. The famous person today is Notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), who’s a more classic feminist activist. I mean, there are two movies of Justice Ginsburg, they are great movies, I enjoyed them, but that’s sort of more what we think of when we think of a feminist.
Sandra O’Connor is a little confounding because she is in some ways a conventional woman. When she was running for office, this is going to sound creepy to your listeners but this is why people spoke in 1970. When she was running for office in the Arizona Legislature, she would say — come to audience and say, I come to you wearing with my wedding ring in my bra. Well, what was she doing there? She was saying very kind of clumsily in a way. I’m a woman, I’m a conventional woman, I wear a wedding ring, I’m not a bra burner, I’m not some crazy woman as Webber. She had to do that in order to get elected, whatever she personally thought.
Now, I know privately, she was very much cared about women’s rights, very much and on the court she was always a model to her female clerks and she traveled all over, she was pretty open about it. The way to get ahead for a woman is to get out there, put on a good show. She was a spin, hide the ball, but she didn’t do it as a kind of conventional, liberal, feminist activist, that was just not who she was, but I think she was a Goldwater Republican. I mean her own politics were sort of center-right.
So it’s a long answer to your question, but she doesn’t neatly fit into what we think of as a feminist model. I would argue that she did more for women’s rights than anybody alive.
Rocky Dhir: Well, and that’s the theme I kind of got from the pages as I read them. Here is — this is interesting. A couple years ago when ‘Destiny and Power’ came out, the biography of George Bush 41, Jon Meacham was discussing his work on it and he said, look, the cardinal sin for a biographer is to “fall in love with your subject”, but he said as he read the memoirs and got to know Bush 41, he found himself committing the cardinal sin. He started to really like and respect Bush 41.
I got the impression that you really like Sandra Day O’Connor. You seemed to really like her as a person, is that, is that fair? I mean, there was nothing unflattering really?
Evan Thomas: I didn’t start out that way. She is a little scary to meet or she was. Now she has Alzheimer’s now, but when she was in her prime and she had a long prime. She was just formidable. She didn’t really trust journalists. I was brought into being her ghostwriter maybe, and she wasn’t eager to see me, and she was a little chilly with me, and I think other reporters that had that experience, she could be abrupt especially in her old age.
So I didn’t start out well, but also she’s a kind of a 00:26:51 quality at times to the outside world, and also even a bit of a phony politicians’ side, those are all sides I saw superficially at first they put me off. As I got into this, as I you got to know her a little bit then she would start to have dementia, so I didn’t see the full O’Connor personally, but I certainly saw everybody or I really got to know her sons, her three sons. I got to know her law clerks, I got to know her colleagues. As I did that as my wife and I said that, I really did come to admire her, and yes, I fell prey to the — Jon Meacham is a good friend of mine. He was the — I was the best man in his wedding.
Rocky Dhir: Oh wow.
Evan Thomas: So I have talked about this. I’ve talked about this a lot with him.
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Evan Thomas: And he is right. You’ve got to be careful as a biographer. You’re not supposed to fall in love, but of course all biographers who are honest with themselves admit that there’s a — you form a personal attachment. I’m not uncritical with Justice O’Connor, and I try to be evenhanded in the book, but do I admire her? Yes. Do I like her? Yes.
Rocky Dhir: One thing that I — as I’m getting to know you, there’s something that I think you and Justice O’Connor, you may have a lot in common, but there’s one thing that stands out as we’ve been talking, and that is your spouses. You both seem to have very supportive and powerful spouses. In your case Osce is obviously very accomplished attorney, who has helped you put this book together.
In Justice O’Connor’s case her husband John, effectively gave up this powerful very comfortable senior partner position in Phoenix to move to Washington and as he called it, becomes second fiddle to his wife. And so, could you comment for a moment about maybe these great people that we always read about? To what extent do their spouses play a role in their greatness and in their accomplishments? It sounds like it’s pretty significant?
Evan Thomas: Critically. I mean, I’ve written about presidents, and where things kind of break down in the marital bedroom is often, it’s the presidency. Okay, let’s take the most powerful job on the planet.
Rocky Dhir: Okay, sure.
Evan Thomas: If the President doesn’t have a close relationship with his or her spouse, trouble, right. Richard Nixon who I wrote about, he mostly had a good marriage with Pat, but in the White House it deteriorated. He started drinking, she started little bit too, they became apart. That hurt Richard Nixon. No question about it.
One thing she would have told him to burn the tapes, but she didn’t because he didn’t ask. So you look at LBJ and Lady Bird, how important that was to LBJ, even though he was an unfaithful husband and kind of mean to her. They had really, in some ways had a great marriage. Critically important. Life for the top is lonely. Human beings really aren’t meant to do those things alone. They need support, help, companionship, trust, and if you’re lucky you get that from your spouse.
Rocky Dhir: So it sounds like both John and Sandra are married well. If you look at it from that perspective, they found people that could support themselves.
Evan Thomas: So the book is of — as readers will find. It’s a love story. Now like most love stories it’s not completely uncomplicated because John really did have to give up a lot —
Rocky Dhir: Sure.
Evan Thomas: — to go to Washington and his law career was not great there. He didn’t really work out at a law firm. He had been the big man in Phoenix. I mean, the big man, in a kind of an old-fashioned lawyer’s way. He was head of a rotary. He was a head of a couple hospitals, politically involved. He was great at keeping people out of court. His great skill was to say, keep big businesses out of court. But Washington does not have a practice like that. And so he was, I would say was a failure, but he was not on success and that was very tough on his ego and she understood that and then when he got Alzheimer’s she did everything she could to care for him, even taking him to her chambers where he would sleep on the bench in the hall, but eventually she had to leave the court and she had to leave the court to care for him. She said so. He sacrifice for me, now I’m going to sacrifice for him.
The height of her powers, she resigns from the Supreme Court to take care of him. Within six months he can barely recognize her when we talk about tragedies, it’s heartbreaking, but kind of wonderful story at the same time.
Rocky Dhir: So, Evan, one final question that’s kind of — it’s unrelated but it goes back to the book in a way. You have been to law school, you’ve written now 10 books, what do you think is maybe a writing tip that lawyers, practicing lawyers need to learn from people like you? Those who are in the journalism field, I’ll call it the professional storytelling field, what are some writing tips maybe we need to start thinking about that maybe we haven’t quite taken to yet?
Evan Thomas: Well, this is presumptuous of me, because I’m not — I have never stood up in a courtroom, and I go to watch trials, but I have never been, so this is highly presumptuous. But I would say, first, tell a story and I think a lot of your listeners already do this. Great trial lawyers are storytellers. So I’m not telling, saying anything that they don’t already know, but I would definitely say you’ve got to tell a story.
The other thing I think lawyers do and I understand this because they have to — because the record is important. I sometimes having been to a couple of trials think that lawyers overdo it a bit, and they pile on so much detail that the fact-finder, the jury or the judge might get a little overwhelmed by it at all. I know that they are setting a record for appeal and all that, but I always wonder why trial lawyers can’t be a little more concise. This may be naive on my part, but I just — my business was to be concise.
And I’ve always wondered if maybe some lawyers couldn’t be a little bit more concise in their writing and in their oral presentation. So, one of the clichés — good clichés for writers is omit unnecessary words as Strunk & White put it, and I wonder if lawyers might benefit from that advice as well.
Rocky Dhir: Well, you’ve got a law degree, so you get to call yourself a lawyer and so you’re giving advice to us and we’ll take it as advice from a peer. So, thank you for that. I think it’s advice that we all struggle with every day when we’re writing our briefs or when we’re telling our stories.
So I appreciate that and —
Evan Thomas: I will say that the great ones is just one other point, getting to a point. They’re really — Sandra Day O’Connor could go to a thousand pages of turgid complex documents and pick out the point bang. Chief Justice Roberts told us that when he was — he had argued 40 cases before the Supreme Court and he always looked to her question first, because it would frame. He would get a sense of where the court was going, what he needed to do. He didn’t — he didn’t obviously aim at her because it’s bad for an advocate to pick out one judge for a panel, but he told us he was thinking about her, because she had this unique capacity to get to the point. That is the greatest gift of all.
Rocky Dhir: That is interesting. Well, unfortunately, that is all the time we have for today. I could go on and on. Evan, this is fascinating, but Evan Thomas, thank you for joining us so much.
And of course, I want to thank you, the listener for tuning in. This podcast as you know is brought to you, thanks to the generous support of LawPay; so LawPay, as always, thank you for what you do.
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