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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.”•

__________

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. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  2. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  3. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  4. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  5. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

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