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Terms of Art: Attorney is a 'study in contrasts'

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ArtThere is no shortage of one-dimensional caricatures in popular culture depicting lawyers as mercenary and unfeeling. Those of us who have devoted ourselves to this noble profession know that lawyers are actually deeply and emotionally invested in our communities, including our civic institutions. In this vein, I have long noted with interest the number of attorneys who not only harbor a love of the arts, but who also have a unique artistic passion. This column will feature such practitioner-artists in hopes of gleaning valuable insights from their experiences.

Who better to feature in this inaugural column than Indiana University Health’s Senior Vice President/General Counsel Norman G. Tabler? His devotion to art and community is the stuff of local legend. Avid WFYI radio listeners also know Tabler as an accomplished humorist. Impeccably dressed, his affinity for homburgs and fedoras reflects his high school Latin teacher’s theory that folks who dress well conduct themselves accordingly. A self-professed news junkie with a penchant for biographies and a special place in his heart for bulldogs, he is a three-dimensional original. Witty and wickedly funny, he is a study in contrasts – this understated dapper gentleman whose nuanced wordplay, laconic wit, and deadpan delivery often generates riotous laughter. He attributes his success as a humorist to the effect of “how serious I look, contrasted with the relative humor of what I’m saying.” Tabler’s brand of humor is not pie-in-the face slapstick. He delivers his punchlines “as if he’s Norm from Legal,” and entertains “the way your professor from college got laughs.”

Tabler’s love affair with language began early. He explains that “it is our human nature to want to capture ideas and concepts in words, and to tame them by naming them.” He alludes to the way people feel more secure when they can affix a name to a mystifying phenomenon, much like the sense of control – even comfort – that patients derive from medical diagnoses, even terrible ones. He shares an instructive quote from renowned jurist Learned Hand, “There is no surer way to misread any document than to read it literally.” “Our language is a code,” Tabler explains. “We rarely say what we mean.”

Recognizing that there is power in the ability to manipulate that all-important code, Tabler enrolled in law school, amazed that “working with language and words could actually be his career.” He was instantly drawn to contract law, which provided an “amazing insight into our society and its values, and what society regards as important and unimportant. To this day, I still love deep intense study of contractual terms and looking for ambiguities.” Early in his career, Tabler embraced his innate ability to wield language to suit his clients’ needs. Reflecting upon his experience, he adds, “I’ve been allowed to become the kind of lawyer I want to be. One who works with language and writes a lot – it’s been a very satisfying career.”

Tabler insists that being a busy lawyer affords ample opportunity for expression “because lawyers have more control over their schedules, and have more opportunities to pursue interests and to weave together our professional and personal interests.” Although he acknowledges the occasional pang of regret for not allotting more time to his craft, writing opportunities abound for Tabler, who contributes regularly to WFYI’s spring and fall membership broadcasts. Like most NPR fans, he concedes that the pledge drives “always drove me crazy.” A long-time board member, he recalls grumbling about the pledge drives in a meeting years ago, and suddenly finding himself “trapped” into saying that he would try to write an interesting, if not entertaining, spot.

And so it began ... What Tabler had expected to be an anonymous one-time “spot” was played in heavy rotation and publicly attributed to him. Crafted to sound like it originated at NPR headquarters, the spot was so well-received that Tabler has since prepared them regularly for 10 years, with some of his works now in syndication in other radio markets. Buoyed by the public’s warm reception, Tabler emerged from the shadows, acknowledging that for years he had written jokes for others, including three governors, to deliver. “It’s fun,” he adds. “This all started with writing. I can’t think of anything that’s brought me more satisfaction.”

Whether in pursuit of his clients’ interests or to entertain, Tabler is ever manipulating language to establish the desired connection and to achieve maximum impact. On how legal writing and his unique brand of humorous writing intersect, Tabler responds that writing is like a window pane, “you shouldn’t be able to see it.” If one’s focus is on the pane and not the view beyond, he explains, there is probably some distracting smudge on the window. Bridging his work and humor, Tabler opines, “it’s all the same thing. There’s always a best way to say it.”•

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Wandini Riggins is an associate in the Indianapolis firm of LewisWagner LLP. She concentrates her practice in the areas of insurance bad faith disputes and insurance coverage. She can be reached at wriggins@lewiswagner.com. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.
 

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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