Wordsmith: Professor helps students write with clarity, precision

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News
 
Cooley law students in Professor Norm Plate’s classes might be amused to learn of some of his former personae—as Piglet, Snoopy, Mordred from “Camelot,” Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Renfield in “Dracula the Vampire” and many more roles in numerous theatrical productions. But one of his favorite roles was playing a lawyer, Henry Drummond—who is loosely based on Clarence Darrow in the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial”—in “Inherit the Wind.”
 
Plate has been involved with all aspects of theater—acting, directing, producing, and tech—with companies that include the Ohio Festival Theatre Company and Columbus Children’s Theater, as well as the Stage Right Theatre Company and Desert Star Playhouse, both in Salt Lake City, among others.
 
Unfortunately, Plate hasn’t been able to tread the boards for a few years, since starting his teaching career.
 
“There simply isn’t time. But I like to tell folks that I do two three-hour performances —my classes—for 39 weeks a year,” he says with a smile.
 
Those “performances” are as a professor of Research & Writing and Advanced Research & Writing at Cooley’s Lansing campus, where Plate began teaching as a visiting professor in May 2005, was promoted to a tenure-track associate professor in January 2006, and became a full professor with tenure two years ago.
 
He enjoys the diversity of Cooley’s student body.
 
“Our students come from all over the country—all over the world, in fact—and have widely varying academic backgrounds and world views,” he says. “I also particularly enjoy what I call ‘light bulb moments,’ where a student who’s been struggling with a certain concept finally ‘gets it.’ Those moments are sheer joy!”
 
In addition to teaching at Cooley, since January 2009 Plate has been the executive director of Scribes—The American Society of Legal Writers (www.scribes.org).  Founded in 1953 to honor legal writers and encourage a “clear, succinct, and forceful style in legal writing,” Scribes has more than 2,000 members, and its board members include legal-writing experts Bryan Garner and Joe Kimble;  Illinois Appellate Court Judge Michael B. Hyman; and Mark P. Painter, former judge of the Ohio Court of Appeals and the United Nations Appeals Tribunal.
 
Plate, who earned an undergrad degree in government from the University of Notre Dame, originally set his career sights in the medical field. During his freshman year, however, he found the Arts & Letters courses—particularly the writing classes—held more appeal than science classes. Since law is a profession that involves a great deal of writing, he decided that would be a better career path, and he went on to earn his J.D. from the University of Illinois College of Law.
 
Before beginning the practice of law, Plate did two clerkships—one with a federal district court judge in East St. Louis, Ill., and one with a state appellate court judge in Salt Lake City. He fondly remembers both men.
 
“My judges taught me more about writing than I learned in three years of law school. I owe a great deal of my writing skills to the lessons I learned from them.”
 
Plate then spent four years as an assistant attorney general in the Utah Attorney General’s Office, first in the civil appeals section and later in the criminal appeals division.
 
“I found that practicing appellate law was really my niche—give me a case record and access to the law, and then watch me go!”
 
In one interesting case, Monson v. Carver, Plate persuaded the Utah Supreme Court to rule, in part, that the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole has the constitutional authority to order restitution as a condition of parole even if the sentencing court did not order restitution as part of the underlying sentence. And in State v. Jarman, he convinced the Utah Court of Appeals to extend the rule from U.S. Supreme Court decision in Pennsylvania Board of Probation & Parole v. Scott—that the federal exclusionary rule does not apply in parole violation proceedings—to encompass probation revocation proceedings as well.
 
Plate then moved to Ohio to serve in several capacities with the Attorney General’s office: in the Health and Human Services section, then as the assistant chief of the Capital Crimes section, and finally as the Chief of the Corrections Litigation section.
 
“I found I enjoyed the camaraderie at the Ohio AG’s office, particularly when I worked in the Capital Crimes section,” he says. “Whenever I had an issue that was similar to one that had been addressed by a colleague in an earlier brief, the colleague would gladly share their research with me to keep me from having to reinvent the wheel.”  
 
Shortly after being appointed as assistant chief of the Capital Crimes section, Plate took over a case set for argument before the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Another attorney—then no longer with the AG’s office—had authored the brief; and in studying the case file, Plate learned the attorney had taken an unsupportable position on one issue.
 
“I was also aware that one of the Sixth Circuit judges on my panel had a penchant for harassing attorneys—especially assistant attorneys general—when the judge disagreed with the party’s position,” he says.
 
Fortunately, Plate was able to find a way for the state to win the case without taking the position that he found was unsupportable.
 
“When I got up to argue, the disagreeable Sixth Circuit judge immediately jumped on me for the untenable argument. I calmly told the judge that the state was willing to concede the point and then proceeded to explain why we should win the case anyway. By doing so, I defused the situation, and the disagreeable judge didn’t ask another question during the rest of my argument. We received a unanimous decision in our favor based on the alternate ground that I argued at oral argument.”
 
Plate also enjoyed writing memos to the Ohio AG, who would not read any memo more than one page long.
 
“I had the task of reducing down to one page every memo that Capital Crimes sent to the AG. Since capital cases often involve complex issues and have lengthy case histories, this task ingrained in me a love of clear, concise, reader-friendly writing,” he says.
 
Plate—who was drawn to teaching as early as first grade where he appreciated the giftedness of his teacher—started his education career while working as chief of the Corrections Litigation section at the Ohio AG’s office. A colleague who was teaching part-time at Capital University Law School in Columbus suggested that Plate pursue a part-time instructor opening to teach Legal Research & Writing.
 
“I pursued the opportunity and landed the job,” he says. “Once I began to teach, I tapped into those latent feelings from first grade that I was meant to teach, and knew I’d found my calling.”
 
Shortly before his initial one-year contract at Capital ended, Plate received a call from his former college roommate, Rich Henke, a professor at Cooley Law School in Lansing, about an opening for a visiting professor in Research & Writing. With a sense he was following his calling, Plate ended his career with the Ohio AG’s office, accepted the position at Cooley, leaving the Buckeye State for Michigan.
 
A native of Wilmette, Ill., north of Chicago, Plate and his life partner, Jim, call Brighton home. The two used to volunteer at St. Mary’s Student Parish in Ann Arbor where they were in the choir for the 5 p.m. Saturday mass until that worship service was canceled; they are now looking for other choral options.
 
Another of Plate’s interests is fantasy football.
 
“I co-own a team with my best friend, Keith Lieberman, and our team—Born to Run—has won two of the last three championships in our league.”