Letter to the Editor: The “Halo Effect” in Legal Writing

I enjoyed Bryan Garner’s discussion of the “halo effect” in “The Psychology of Credibility” (May 2015). But I cringed when I read Justice Antonin Scalia’s comment about sloppy writing intimating sloppy thinking.

I love good analogies and crisp writing as much as the next guy; but I lived with my functionally illiterate grandfather growing up, and he is no fool. So I try not to hold poor writing against anyone. (I rarely use “sic”—just make the correction and let it go, man.) For a litigator, criticizing writing is like complaining about appearance—it’s a sign of an intellectual lightweight. By elevating form over substance, the complainer reveals an insecurity that should be visible to a decent judge.

Finally, it bears emphasizing that priming can cut both ways (the phrase “lipstick on a pig” comes to mind). Everyone—especially judges—should be mindful of the halo effect, because the more you experience it, the more likely you are to be duped.

Charles J. Borrero
New York City

[published July 1, 2015, ABA Journal]

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