There 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.