Distinguished Alumni Achievement Awards 2010
Dr. Terri LeClercq
BA English 1968, MA English 1970
Professor of English Emerita
The University of Texas at Austin
|Dr. Terri LeClercq
Remarks by Dr. Ann Marie Ellis
Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Terri LeClercq is a leading authority on legal writing. Judges and lawyers around the country rely on her advice to produce readable and elegant documents by omitting jargon, shortening sentences, organizing ideas, and adjusting style and tone to the audience. Terri is frequently called as an expert witness to interpret meaning when court cases rest on points of grammar. She was one of the first professors to be invited to teach legal writing in the University of Texas Law School, and she helped to establish legal writing as an essential field of study for law students.
Terri grew up in a military family in the U.S. and Europe. A ballet dancer, she traveled with a dance troupe across Europe, joined an elite dance corps in her San Antonio high school, and aspired to become a Strutter at Southwest Texas. She thought that, if she were really good as a Strutter, she would become a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
But when she got to SWT, she discovered the English Department and turned her attention to other things. She got became a grader for the English professor Miss Eileen O’Meara. Another English professor, Dr. Thomas Brasher, made an impression because he was debonair, wore a zoot suit, and smoked illegally in the classroom. He was also the first book author she’d ever met. And she was fond of Professor Martin Juel, Dean of Students and faculty advisor to the Student Senate on which Terri served as a freshman. Terri said he treated all of his students as if they were important.
After graduating and teaching in the San Antonio public schools for a year, she returned to SWT where she obtained a master’s degree in English in nine months. She said her thesis advisor, Dr. Norman Petersen, let her bumble her way through her thesis on Eudora Welty, who is notoriously unreliable as a narrator. Terri says she’s grateful to Dr. Petersen for teaching her to be suspicious of narrative voice.
Terri obtained her PhD in American Literature from The University of Texas at Austin, and was invited to join the English faculty. She had been on the faculty for seven years when the UT Law School asked for five English professors to come and do something, as they put it, about Legal Writing. She paid no attention to the call, but four other English faculty did. There were five sections of Legal Writing to teach and, needing a fifth teacher, the first four got in the car in mid-August and came to Terri’s house, pulled her away from her gardening, and took her to the Law School. Awed by the impressive Law School, she accepted the job.
In their first semesters at the Law School, Terri and her colleagues were to teach memos and briefs, but they didn’t know what memos and briefs were. Two weeks into the first semester, Terri said the students knew that she and the other English professors were the stupidest people who’d ever been in the Law School. They were right, she said, but her feelings were hurt. She quickly got a grasp on the material she needed to teach, but it took her about three years to develop the “don’t even think you’re smarter than me” attitude she needed to interact with law students.
Terri went on to have an outstanding career in the UT School of Law, adding one of the first voices of the humanities into the curriculum and winning many honors, including the prestigious lifetime achievement award from the Association of American Law Schools in 2006. She also published two books on legal writing that are standards in the field. She retired in 2009.
Terri is one of only 17 legal writing specialists in the nation with a PhD, and, even in retirement, she is in high demand as a consultant. She teaches a course around the country called Editing for Editors, in which she tells students and professionals what they should and shouldn’t do with other professionals’ prose. Recently, she was invited to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she taught faculty and students in the Chicago-Kent School of Law as the first Ralph Brill Chair Distinguished Visitor.
Terri has been a prolific scholar, and her work is cited frequently in the nation’s legal journals. Her article on ambiguous modifiers or, as legal writing refers to it, The Doctrine of the Last Antecedent, has been used in state supreme courts throughout the country, and the article established Terri as the authority on misplaced modifiers in statutes and case law. She gets a call about once a month from lawyers engaged in court cases, asking her to clarify a legal text in which the placement of words and commas has made the meaning ambiguous. And any day now, everyone in this room will be able to download the “LeClercq App” for I-Phone. The “app,” based on her landmark article, will enable anyone interested in legal writing to check for ambiguity and repair sentences in which a phrase can modify more than one antecedent.
Terri has three children from previous marriages, including a son, Noel, who is working on a degree at Texas State in Geography and History. Terri met her husband of 16 years, Dr. Jack Getman, the noted authority on labor law, at the Law School. She edited a book he wrote on higher ed and fell in love with his narrative voice, which she says was gentle and humane even when he was describing gross malfeasance.
Together, they helped create and taught in the Pre-Law Institute, which teaches minority students in Texas how to apply to law school.
They also contribute to the Texas Civil Rights Project, a group that hires lawyers to advocate for prisoners’ civil rights. They became interested in prisoners’ rights when Terri was arrested a few years ago for social disobedience in a peaceful protest against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, GA, a U.S. military facility that has been called a training camp for Latin American terrorists. Some of the people arrested with Terri were incarcerated in federal prisons, and their letters to Terri described serious human rights abuses. If in the United States we do this sort of thing to people arrested in peaceful protest, Terri asked, what must conditions be like for other prisoners?
With this realization, Terri experienced a harmonic convergence of her legal writing career, her vast acquaintance in the Texas judicial system, and her interest in inmates’ civil rights, and she began what she calls her life’s work. She has written a graphic novel—like a comic book—for Texas prison inmates to use as a guide in writing correct legal documents such as formal complaints and requests for court hearings. The main character is Mr. Dibs, an acronym for “Don’t Be Stupid.” Mr. Dibs is a pro-bono lawyer who enters the prisons to teach classes to inmates that explain their rights while in prison. He doesn’t take guff, and his schmarmy accomplice is a California film producer who creates trouble for the fun of it and to get good footage. Terri hopes that, if she can get the Texas justice system to adopt her book as a manual for incoming prisoners, it will give much-needed help to inmates and reduce the number of incorrect documents that clog the system.
In 1996 Terri was named a Distinguished Alumna of Texas State. A few years ago, she established the Terri LeClercq Courage Award, presented to a member of the Legal Writing Institute who has demonstrated an act of personal or professional courage. And she supports many charities, including Habitat for Humanity, for which she builds houses on 30 Saturdays each year. She can frame and wrap houses and hang sheetrock like a pro.
Terri has demonstrated courage and had profound impact on the field of legal writing and in her inspiring humanitarian work. On behalf of the College of Liberal Arts, I’m pleased to present her with the College’s highest honor, the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.