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. But one of his favorite roles was playing a lawyer, Henry Drummond – 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 Ohio Festival Theatre Company and Columbus Children’s Theater, as well as the Stage Right Theatre Company and Desert Star Playhouse in Salt Lake City.

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...concept finally ‘gets it.’ Those moments are sheer joy!”

In addition to teaching at Cooley, since January 2009 Plate has been 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. its board members include legal-writing experts Bryan Garner and Joe Kimble; Hon. Michael B. Hyman, justice of the Illinois Appellate Court; and Mark P. Painter, former judge of the Ohio Court of Appeals and the U.N. Appeals Tribunal.

Plate, who earned an undergrad degree in government from the University of Notre Dame, originally set his career sights on the medical field. During freshman year, however, he found the Arts and Letters courses – particularly writing – had 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 Assistant Attorney General in the Utah AG’s Office, first in the civil appeals section, then 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.

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...,” he says. “Whenever I had an issue... similar to one  addressed by a colleague in an earlier brief, the colleague would gladly share research with me to keep me from having to reinvent the wheel.” 

Shortly after being appointed to Capital Crimes, Plate took over a case set for argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Another attorney – then no longer with the AG’s office – had authored the brief; and Plate realized its position on one issue was unsupportable.

“I was also aware that one of the Sixth Circuit judges... had a penchant for harassing attorneys – especially assistant attorneys general – when the judge disagreed with the party’s position,” he says.

“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... We received a unanimous decision in our favor based on the alternate ground that I argued...”

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 started his education career when a colleague at the Ohio AG’s office who was teaching part-time at Capital University Law School suggested that Plate pursue a part-time instructor opening to teach Legal Research and Writing. He landed the job.

Plate then received a call from a former college roommate, now at Cooley Law School, about an opening for a visiting professor in Research and Writing. With a sense he was following his calling, Plate ended his career with the Ohio AG’s office, accepted the position at Cooley, and left the Buckeye State for Michigan.

A native of Wilmette, Ill., Plate and his life partner, Jim, call Brighton home.