When Norman Tabler returned to Faegre Baker Daniels LLP after a 16-year stint as general counsel for Indiana University Health, he was confused by all the talk about blogs.
His co-workers explained the firm had established blogs on its website and the attorneys were encouraged to contribute short missives about court decisions, lawsuits or regulations in their practice area. So Tabler, who did not learn to type until he was middle-aged, swiveled his chair around to his computer and began tapping out his take on the health news of the day.
Since then, he has found blog writing to be the perfect medium for his brand of humor and insight. The mundane topics he makes funny; the lively developments he makes hilarious. A recent post examined the revelation that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are enlisting older patients to sniff out fraud in doctors’ offices. Tabler dubbed them the “Senior Sleuth Squad.”
Putting his thoughts into a brief post, he said, has been one of the most enjoyable activities of his professional life.
“I really like doing it,” Tabler said. “One reason is way down deep, I’m superficial.”
Actually, Tabler is an attorney who loves good writing. He has carried his affection for language into his career where he specifically chose to first practice nonprofit law because
it offered the most opportunity to write. Switching to health law did not slow the pace of articles for magazines and newsletters, speeches, presentations and, most recently, blogs. He has even dashed off jokes for politicians and pledge spots for public radio.
Talking about the writing, Tabler is relaxed and uses words like “fun” and “enjoyable.” He never characterizes the craft as a struggle or hard work. However, Richard Freije, partner at Faegre Baker Daniels, is not persuaded, arguing that to write in the witty and clever manner that Tabler does is very difficult.
“I think for most of us to do something at his level, first it takes a lot of time, effort and reflection, and second it takes a high level of creativity,” Freije said.
Looking for the humor
In June, Tabler was recognized nationally for his prose with a 2014 Burton Award for Distinguished Legal Writing. Each year, the Burton Awards, a not-for-profit associated with the Library of Congress, selects 30 outstanding writers from the nominations submitted by the 1,000-largest law firms in the country. The honor celebrates the winning lawyers’ successes in the law with special emphasis on writing and reform.
Colleagues at Faegre Baker Daniels turned in Tabler’s article, “Advantages of Captive Insurance Programs for Health Systems (And Not Just Lower Premiums),” to the Burton Awards. The piece had been printed in a 2013 edition of The Health Lawyer, a publication of the American Bar Association’s Health Law Section.
The article was submitted without Tabler’s knowledge. When he received the letter informing him that he was being given a Burton Award, he confessed he almost threw the notification away, thinking it was just a solicitation for a plaque.
The award sits in his office.
“It meant a lot to me because I love to write and I take a lot of pride in my writing,” Tabler said, turning serious.
He writes mostly in the mornings in his office on the top floor of Faegre Baker Daniels’ 96th Street office in Indianapolis. Tabler settles in at his clean desk, computer on his right, a row of reference books (including an old copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style) on the credenza behind him. He reads through newsletters and articles. When something he reads sparks his imagination, he writes.
“I like to make things funny. I think almost anything can be made interesting if you sort of look at it from a different perspective,” he advised.
His perspective can take excruciatingly dry topics and turn them into delightful reading, such as his comparison of the exceptions contained in the Stark Law to Russian dolls. That essay brought a request asking for permission to reprint the work in the supplement to a legal textbook.
Similar requests have come from industry magazines wanting to know if he could expand a blog into a longer article.
WFYI Public Media has used Tabler’s writing skills to solicit donations from listeners during the annual membership campaigns. His cleverness on the air has become such a favorite that the station released a compilation CD of his greatest hits.
“Norm has an unusual wit and perspective on things that do make people laugh and kind of see things in a different light,” said Lloyd Wright, WFYI president and CEO.
Style and substance
A native Hoosier, Tabler grew up on the family farm with his siblings in Floyds Knobs. He attended the elementary grades in a four-room school and then went to New Albany High School where he took Latin and college prep courses. His study of Latin and Biblical Greek during undergraduate and graduate studies at Princeton and Yale universities gave him the foundation to be a good writer.
Once Tabler realized his plans to become a college professor no longer interested him, he searched for another profession and found the law. He believed as a lawyer he could continue to write as well as do analysis, so he enrolled in Columbia Law School.
“I was right, at least there were large areas of the law that lent themselves to that focus on language,” Tabler said.
In addition to being a superior legal writer, Freije said, Tabler is also a very good lawyer. He described his colleague as having an impressive way of dealing with clients, always taking a real interest in a client’s problem.
“Norm is just a bright and smart guy,” Freije said.
Tabler sees a strong relationship between being a successful lawyer and being a good writer. He passes that lesson along to the young associates at his firm, instructing them on how to write well.
“More than any other factor, writing is what a young lawyer is judged by,” Tabler said.
Over the years he has seen a general deterioration in writing standards. To be successful, Tabler said, new lawyers need to have a respect and even a reverence for the written word. But too often, they believe that style or manner of expression is really not important and that substance is all that really counts.
He scoffs at that notion, maintaining substance cannot be separated from style in good writing.
“In legal writing you could never say, ‘Boy, he got the subject, it’s exactly right, but the writing’s horrible,’” he said.
Tabler makes sure the prose he writes uses the right words, adheres to rules of grammar and clearly explains his point of view.
Like the suspenders and cufflinks he wears, his standard for writing may be a throwback to an older time, but his current stuff is such fun to read – especially the blogs.•