Richmond lawyer and professor Rodney Johnson, who died last Wednesday, was one of my most important teachers, although only through his formbooks and continuing-education course. He and William & Mary Prof. John E. Donaldson gave me an outstanding model for how the content and practice of law should intersect with real people’s lives, and how lawyers should interact with legislatures. They were my first instructors in drafting, a dark and mysterious art that I care about deeply. All of their teachings affect my techniques in family law and mediation just as much as in drafting wills, trusts, powers of attorney, etc.
I still use Prof. Johnson’s forms for my wills, etc., though I have painstakingly translated them into plainer English and have made them even more modular, and even easier to customize efficiently while avoiding common revision mistakes and unintended consequences – i.e., building on his inspiration to make them even more “Johnsonian”. Documents should have the legal effect that people intend, across time, but should also be worded so that non-lawyers understand them: two goals that can be mutually exclusive, and require great effort and imagination to combine. They must be built to withstand every possible unexpected sequence of events, continuing to carry out the client's wishes even though most clients don't want to think about the possibilities. To minimize the need to go to court, or even to lawyers, to figure out what they mean. And to discourage and survive the tampering of clients who know a little bit about the law and terminology, most of it wrong, and think they know everything.
I came into law school already believing in the ideal of the Common Law as explained by Bruno Leoni in Freedom and the Law: that the law, at its best, reflects the rules of life, adapted to local conditions, which most people find fair and workable when they actually have to apply them to resolve real disputes. And that therefore, common law, forged and evolving in jury trials and judges' decisions, is better than legislation, which can be made up in a vacuum and based on ideologies and grand systems that look impressive on paper but are irrelevant to real life. What I learned from Johnson, Donaldson, and other teachers did not change that, but gave me a solid idea of how to achieve those objectives in the legal system as it actually is. Legislation about wills, trusts etc. should work so as to provide "default" rules, and rules of interpretation, to carry out what most people would want, intend and mean if they thought about it and had a chance to spell it out expressly. But also make it easy for people with different wishes to put those into effect. Legislation can be an efficient way to tweak the common-law rules, and older statutes, to make the laws and personal documents do what most people directly affected by them most often want them to do. This can and should make litigation and adjudication less necessary. It should also make it less necessary for people to hire lawyers and make or update their wills, contracts, trusts, powers of attorney, etc. Lawyers should work with legislators, as Professors Johnson and Donaldson did, by telling them what kinds of laws make things easier, fairer and more peaceful for clients and families, and what laws have had, or might have, unintended consequences; not lobbying for any particular faction based on gender, age, class, or some other special interest, but to increase everyone's welfare by lubricating the system and reducing conflict and court involvement in people's lives. That's the kinds of laws and lobbying that we heard about in law school, and it is what I and others try to to when informing legislators about the pros and cons of family-law legislation, as well.
By ELLEN ROBERTSON Richmond Times-Dispatch