Category Archives: Writing

3 Ways To Make Your Brief Read Better On An iPad

24toys-articleLargeThanks to some of my Michigan colleagues, I learned today for the first time that a growing number of appellate court justices are reading briefs on an iPad. I guess it’s pretty clear that I’m out of touch. (I feel like Dr. Evil, on Austin Powers, when he demands the government pay him only $1 million.)

Fortunately for me, and for you, Daniel Sockwell, writing in the Columbia Business Law Review, is not so out of touch. In a piece entitled “Writing a Brief for the iPad Judge,” he offers some really useful advice for writing an appellate brief if you know your judge may end up reading it on an iPad. How would you know? By asking the clerk, of course.

Here are 3 of Sockwell’s tips:

1. Use Fewer FootnotesSockwell writes that “[o]ne of the advantages of reading on an iPad is that judges can adjust the screen view, zooming in and focusing on the current passage.” Unfortunately, this advantage is “lost if footnotes require the reader (judge) to constantly scroll to the bottom of the page for citations or substantive material.” Sockwell feels this compounds the risk that the judge or her clerk might not bother to read the footnotes at all.

2. Choose Your Font With Care. Sockwell notes that, while “the effective resolution of an iPad [is] closer to print,” there is a risk that “some of the best print fonts can become jagged or difficult to read at screen resolutions.” What should you do? Unfortunately, Sockwell leaves us wondering, though he does point us in the direction of an entire book on the subject of fonts (the perfect gift for that typography nut in your life). I started to do some of my own online research to find out what kind of fonts read best on iPads, but I came up short. I’m going to go with the plan to use a simple font rather than anything really creative. If someone has some clearer suggestion, maybe they could leave a comment.

3. Go With “Scientific,” Rather than Traditional Legal Hierarchical Headings. We typically use traditional hierarchical headings in briefs that are printed (e.g., Part I, Section A, Subsection 1, etc.). This method apparently doesn’t work well for documents read on an iPad, because it’s easy to lose track of which “Section A” one’s looking at. Instead, Sockwell urges brief writers to adopt the scientific hierarchical headings (e.g., Part 1, Section 1.1, Subsection 1.1.1, etc.).

Sockwell includes one more point: be sure to adhere to local rules, even if it means making a stylistic sacrifice. While double spacing of lines might look horrible on an iPad, it may be required by the local rules, at least until rules are universally updated to reflect the reality that more and more judges are reading briefs on iPads.


If A Literary God Wrote An Appellate Brief . . .

wallaceWhat would his sentences be like? Would they read like his prose, if the prose that he wrote read like this?

“It was this look on the face that (slowly) turned left to look at her from the ambulance–a face that in the very most enuretic and disturbing way both was and was not the face of the husband she loved — that galvanized Jeni Roberts awake and prompted her to gather every bit of her nerve together and make the frantic humiliating call to the man she had once thought very seriously of marrying, an associate sales manager and probationary Rotarian whose own facial asymmetry — he had suffered a serious childhood accident that subsequently caused the left half of his face to develop differently from the right side of his face; his left nostril was unusually large, and gaped, and his left eye, which appeared to be almost all iris, was surrounded by concentric rings and bags of slack flesh that constantly twitched and throbbed as irreversibly damaged nerves randomly fired — was what, Jeni decided after their relationship foundered, had helped fuel her uncontrollable suspicion that he had a secret, impenetrable part to his character that fantasized about lovemaking with other women even while his healthy, perfectly symmetrical, and seemingly uninjurable thingie was inside her.” (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, “Adult World (I),” p.153.)

Scary? Sure, if you’re the appellate justice’s long-suffering clerk. You might wonder, then, why legal writing guru Bryan Garner took the time to interview said Literary God–David Foster Wallace–about persuasive legal writing, before the LG’s untimely death by suicide in 2008.

Well, wonder no longer. As highlighted in a recent article by Garner himself in the ABA Journal, it turns out that, although his fiction is often . . . er . . . challenging, DFW has something to say about persuasive writing, not only from the perspective of an innovative novelist, but also as both an essayist and an academic. Among the things he said:

“So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other—and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Like: “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument—and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.”

I’m looking forward to the book that contains the fruits of this interview, Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing. Royalties from the book will apparently support the David Foster Wallace literary archive housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.


Do You Use The Rhetorical “Rule of Three”?

jjkkWell, you should.

I’m referring here to rhetorical device of organizing and presenting topics, words or phrases in groups of threes. Sadly, I neither discovered nor perfected the Rule of Three. But I intend to learn it, practice it and perfect it. (See, I did it right there.)

The Rule of Three enjoys a long history. Writing in the November, 2013 issue of Toastmaster, Washington, D.C.-based speaking consultant Denise Graveline reminds us that the Rule of Three “grew out of the ancient oral storytelling tradition. That tradition is the way we shared information before writing it. Over time, storytellers found that they and their listeners could most easily remember stories structured in three parts, which is why so many fairy tales have triads in them (think three little pigs or three blind mice).” (Id. at 16-17.)

Andrew Dlugan has written extensively on using the Rule of Three in his popular blog Six MinutesHe discusses and gives examples of two special “triad” variants: hendiatris and tricolon. “A hendiatris,” Dlugan writes, “is a figure of speech where three successive words are used to express a central idea.” Examples? Consider these:

  • Veni, vidi, vici.” - Julius Caesar (trans: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
  • “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” – French motto
  • “Wine, women, and song.” – Anonymous

“A tricolon,” Dlugan tells us, “is a series of three parallel elements (words or phrases). In a strict tricolor, the elements have the same length but this condition is often put aside.” In addition to Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici,” Dlugan quotes advice Franklin D. Roosevelt gave to speakers: “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”

I’m not sure I ever gave the Rule of Three any serious thought before, though I recall my father, teaching me photography as a kid, talked about using patterns of three when composing a photograph. According to Dlugan, we can see examples of the Rule of Three at play throughout history: in religion (Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit), movies (Sex, Lies & VideotapeThe Good The Bad And The Ugly), politics (Executive branch, Legislative branch and Judicial branch of government; Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”); sales or advertising (in real estate: Location, Location, Location). Of course we learn about triads in music theory, as well.

Even though I never gave much conscious thought to the Rule of Three, I think that, like most rhetorical conventions, it penetrated into my thinking and composition through the magical osmosis of reading good writing. Dr. Seuss, for example.

Whatever the source, I unconsciously used the Rule of Three when I created my dreaded “elevator speech.” As much as I think the 30 second elevator speech has no place in a normal conversation between people who have an IQ over, say, 50, you would be surprised how effective it is to have a well-crafted self-advertisement handy when you are at a business or networking event and everyone in the room is asked to introduce themselves and describe what they do. I find myself in these situations about once a week. My elevator speech, I’m not at all embarrassed (well , actually . . . I am a little embarrassed) to recite:

I’m Alex Craigie. I’m a Partner in the Los Angeles office of Dykema. My practice currently focuses on helping Southern California employers [1] prevent, [2] manage and [3] resolve employment disputes as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

An example of a hendiatris at work. I might vary parts of this to suit the audience. For example, if I’m working a room that doesn’t have a clue who or what a “Dykema” is, I might throw in that it is a “premiere Mid-West full-service law firm. ” No matter what, though, I always include my core description which centers around three verbs which describe what I do: I prevent, I manage and I resolve.

So think about invoking the Rule of Three.


Partners: Go Easy With That Damned Red Pen

hgyI can trace four periods in my life that significantly shaped my writing.

First, I’ve always been a passionate reader. Reading the good writing of others is not only great fun, it’s indispensable for learning to write well.

Second, in college I double majored in Philosophy and Literature-Writing. These years taught me to write very quickly. In a pinch, I would often leave myself only a very few hours–sometimes only 2 or 3–to write a paper that I could have worried over for days. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this habit of procrastination–not recommended for everyone–which required me to organize my thoughts and write coherent prose very rapidly, was probably the best preparation for the writing skills I use almost everyday as a lawyer.

Third was law school. I don’t like to think that law school did much to shape my writing. I didn’t get along with the IRAC method at first. As you can imagine, philosophers and literary thinkers tend to (1) doubt anything called a “Rule,” (2) live in the realm of “Analysis,” and (3) sometimes never get to any “Conclusion.” If you’re a law student who struggles with adapting to IRAC, I feel your pain. Take refuge in the knowledge that you’ll one day grasp the beauty of the IRAC method. You’ll master it eventually, or fail the bar exam.

I did benefit from Law Review, however. The journal experience helped me get the hang of editing the writing of others. It also helped hone my citation skills and attention to detail.

Without a doubt, the biggest influence on my legal writing has been the tireless editing and revision by my longtime mentor. For the first five or so years of my career, I always dreaded getting back any first or second draft. Would it be as consumed with red ink as the one that came before?

But he persisted and his tutelage paid off. I learned to write much more crisply and economically. My legal writing became less linguistically rich, but shorter and clearer. And while there were things he did that occasionally drove me absolutely batshit, I really appreciate the time and effort he took working with me to help develop my writing and advocacy skills. I’m now flattered on those rare instances when he seeks out my input on an issue or document.

Now I am occasionally the one with the red pen marking up someone else’s work. This is a big responsibility, and should be treated as such. I came across an interesting New York Times interview of Jonathan Klein, the C.E.O. of Getty Images. Among the issues he discussed was “leadership lessons” he learned from his time at Getty Images. He said this:

“I’ve learned a lot from my executive coach. Anytime someone came to me to show me their work, I would critique it. I would almost behave like a schoolteacher–my mother was a teacher–and bring out the metaphorical red pen. And what I didn’t appreciate at the time is that before you mess around the edges, you’ve got to say to yourself, ‘Am I going to make this significantly better, or am I going to make it only 5 or 10 percent better?’ Because in fiddling over the small stuff, you take away all the empowerment. Basically it no longer becomes that person’s work. After a while, those people get into the habit of giving you incomplete work, and then you have to do it for them.”

Heavy is the hand that carries the (not-so-) metaphorical red pen, right? At least with respect to my writing, I always felt that my mentor’s revisions made the end product “significantly better.” In other words, the red ink was clearly worth his time, my attention and the attendant blow to whatever misplaced or unearned sense of “empowerment” I had as a baby lawyer. But I recognize that I don’t always revise someone else’s work either to help make them a better writer or to make the product “significantly better.” Rather, I’m just making it sound more like I wrote it. And, as Jonathan Klein points out, that’s the wrong approach. I need–we all need–to learn to go easier with that red pen.

For the benefit of readers outside law, IRAC means Issue, Rule, Analysis and Conclusion. It is how law students, lawyers and judges typically approach a set of facts. In a nutshell, one “spots” or identifies an Issue, articulates or recalls the Rule, Analyzes how the Rule should be applied under the particular facts, and reaches a Conclusion.


Repetition, Rhetoric, Dr. Seuss and Dr. King

KJUHP

Most writers who take their prose seriously have a few favorite rhetorical devices. When these are used well, they contribute to what is loosely referred to as style. When used poorly, they . . . well, I try not to think about that.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you probably recognize that I tend to heavily favor two such devices, alliteration and repetition. (It’s actually only one device, since alliteration is a form of repetition.)

Blatant, obvious, excessive repetition–at least in written form (rather than a speech)–is really only appropriate for a children’s book. Since I’ve been reading lots of children’s books over the past few years (two per night is the current average, though my daughter only let’s me choose one of the titles), I’ve come to really appreciate a writer who is not only a master of the children’s story, but a brilliant practitioner of repetition: Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Seuss Geisel).

One of my favorite examples of Seussian repetition, probably among his most subtle examples, appears in And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. The good doctor there writes:

“Unless there’s something I can fix up,
There’ll be an awful traffic mix-up!

It takes Police to do the trick,
To guide them through where traffic’s thick–
It takes Police to do the trick.”

Another fine example shows up in that perennial favorite graduation gift, Oh the Places You’ll Go!:

“But on you will go
though the weather be foul,
On you will go
though your enemies prowl.
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl.
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.”

Perhaps the most famous, obsessive, blatant and brilliant example of Seussian repetition is found in Green Eggs And Ham:

“I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I will not eat them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them ANYWHERE!”

Lest you think this is all child’s play, repetition was a device of choice for a man who was unquestionably among the most compelling American rhetoricians of the last (or any) century, Dr. Martin Luther King. Even if many of us cannot recite from memory all of the details of Dr. King’s “dream,” his use of repetition has helped that speech and his message remain central in the (post) modern American consciousness. He said:

“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

I have a couple of further thoughts. As I said, repetition in texts intended to be read, not heard, must be handled with kid gloves. If  you incorporate Seussian repetition into a brief (or a blog post meant for adults), readers will think: (1) you’re an idiot, (2) you’re making fun of them, or (3) both. Because I value the opinions of both judges and blog readers, I take great care to be judicious with my repetition. Like any rhetorical device, its potency recedes with overuse.

Even in a speech, there is a real danger, if you get too cute with repetition, that your audience will think: (1) you’re an idiot, or (2) you’re an idiot who thinks he’s MLK.

Judiciously used, however, repetition in a writing or a speech can add impact, reinforce your message and make it memorable.


Five Psychological Principles of Jury Persuasion

jjhhtyrewIt is no accident that Thomas Mauet’s Fundamentals of Trial Techniques is the best regarded textbook for trial advocacy, at least among professors and adjunct professors who use a text at all. I kept a fair number of my law school textbooks, but the only one I’ve consulted more than once in 20 years of practice is Mauet’s Fundamentals.

In his chapter on trial strategy, Professor Mauet introduces us to some basic psychological principles which come into play when presenting evidence and argument to jurors. I’ll highlight five good ones here.

1.  Jurors are primarily affective, not cognitive, thinkers. This is probably a huge generalization, but a useful one. Mauet writes: “People have two significantly different decision-making styles. Most people are primarily affective, not cognitive, thinkers. Affective persons are emotional, creative, impulsive, symbol oriented, selective perceivers of information and base decisions largely on previously held attitudes about people and events.” (Id. at 376.)†

2.  Jurors use attitudes to filter information and reach decisions they believe are sensible and fair. We rely on attitudes, values and believes “to filter conflicting information. Our attitudes subconsciously filter information by accepting and remembering consistent information, by ignoring, minimizing, or rejecting inconsistent information, and by distorting inconsistent information to make it consistent with our attitudes.” (Id. at 377.)

3.  Jurors reach decisions quickly, base them on relatively little information, and then resist changing their minds. Just when you thought a jury trial was the perfect forum to resolve a technically complex dispute, such as a patent fight or generally accepted principles of accounting, it turns out that “[j]urors cannot absorb, understand, and retain most of the information they receive during a trial, particularly if most of that information comes through oral testimony. Sensory overload occurs quickly. To relieve the internal stress this problem causes, jurors reach decisions quickly by basing them on relatively little information that their attitudes have subconsciously filtered and received.” (Id. at 377.)

The key for a trial lawyer, then, is to identify the jurors’ “psychological anchors” and “state them in a short, attractive, memorable way that is consistent with jurors’ attitudes and beliefs, and incorporate them into each stage of the trial.” (Id. at 377-78.) For more on this, see my discussions of the Rules of the Road here. This is also consistent with the underpinnings of the Reptile strategy, discussed here.

Why do jurors resist changing their minds? Just as the rush to judgment is fueled by the desire to reduce internal stress caused by sensory overload, the steadfast adherence to their initial decision also helps reduce internal stress. “[I]nconsistent information causes cognitive dissonance–internal conflict and stress. Jurors subconsciously solve this problem by rejecting new information.” (Id. at 378.)

4.  Jury decision-making is influenced by the personality characteristics of individual jurors and how they will interact as a group. Mauet describes three types of jurors: leaders, followers and loners. Recognizing the leaders is key. “Opinion leaders usually have a higher education level and have positions of authority or expertise in their work. Leaders may be authoritarian personalities and often dominate jury discussions; the three most vocal jurors typically control more than 50 percent of the deliberation discussion. Particularly in longer trials, jurors form subgroups around opinion leaders.” (Id.)

Followers  . . . well, they follow the leaders. But loners are worth worrying about. “Loners . . . have no particular interest in either interacting or agreeing with other jurors. Loners who seem withdrawn because of recent traumatic experiences frequently become punitive jurors.” (Id.) Yikes!

5.  Jurors are influenced by medium variables. The message here is that jurors absorb what they see exponentially better than what they simply hear. Mauet writes, “When the medium is oral testimony, clear, simple common English with a smooth, confident delivery and reinforcing kinesic and paralinguistic cues significantly affect how jurors receive, accept, and retain the communication. . . Since communication is approximately 60 percent kinetic (appearance, gestures, body movement), 30 percent paralinguistic (voice inflection), and only 10 percent word content, trial lawyers must learn to read the kinesic and paralinguistic cues that jurors send during voir dire, witnesses send while testifying, and lawyers send throughout a trial.” (Id. at 380.)

Visual exhibits are hugely important. “Visual exhibits also have extraordinary retention properties. People retain about 85 percent of what they learn visually; retention of aural information is only about 10 percent. Hence, exhibits that pass the ‘billboard test’ — clear, immediate, and attractive — have an extraordinary impact on jurors.” (Id.)

With these psychological principles in mind, we can see why voir dire is so important, as is the packaging of messages, particularly anything that is complex or likely to trigger jurors’ long and closely held attitudes and beliefs. Good luck.

†All citations are to the Third Edition.


Four Rhetorical Figures That Will Enliven Your Legal Writing

gytWhy introduce rhetorical figures into your legal writing? Well, if done right, they can elevate good writing to great writing. As pointed out by that acknowledged legal writing guru, Bryan Garner, in The Elements of Legal Style:

“Many of our most gifted legal writers have used figures of speech, or ‘graces of language’–not just insidious vagaries–to give their prose greater force. Figures of speech help make writing something more than serviceable; they help make it memorable.” (Id. at 147.)

Now, introducing rhetorical figures requires practice and should not be overdone. If done badly, they can be . . . well . . . done badly. As Garner himself says:

“Figures of speech are to be used only when they achieve the particular effect–a special emphasis or an aphoristic quality–that you require. Many of them are appropriate primarily in elevated writing . . . . If you were to pack your prose with them, without regard to what you were saying and why, you would achieve only an unintended humor. Experiment cautiously: The plainest possible style is far superior to one that is artificially decorated with figures of speech.” (Id. at 148.)

Here are four rhetorical figures with which most of us have at least a passing familiarity, even if not by name:

1. Metaphor. This is an “implicit comparison between two things of unlike nature that nevertheless have something in common. A metaphor says not that a thing is like something else, but that it is that something else.” Id.

Two examples:

“Juries are not leaves swayed by every breath.” – L. Hand, J., in US v. Garsson, 291 F. 646, 649 (S.D.N.Y. 1923).

“A judge should ask himself the question: If the makers of the Act had themselves come across this ruck in the texture of it, how would they have straightened it out? He must do as they would have done. A judge must not alter the material of which it is woven, but he can and should iron out the creases.” – Denning, L.J., Seaford Court Estates Ltd v. Asher [1949] 2 K.B. 481, 489.

It has been observed that “a skillful writer with metaphors seldom commands them to appear. He collects visual and auditory impressions and waits for them to form into metaphors while he is writing. He draws them from his close knowledge, intimate experience. He does not calculate or manufacture them. ” Ken Macrorie, Telling Writing 207 (1970).

2. Irony. A personal favorite. I love irony. I also, unfortunately, seem to have very limited patience for people with no sense or appreciation for irony. Are they not the dullest knives? Of irony, Garner writes:

“The use of words whose literal and figurative senses are opposites; that is, the difference between what seems to be said and what is meant. The chief weapon of satirists, irony subverts the reader’s expectations. (Garner, at 153.)

A couple of examples:

“I cannot say that I know much about the law, having been far more interested in justice.” – William Temple, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking at the Inns of Court, as quoted in Lord Denning’s The Road to Justice 1 (1955).

“The only thing about the appeals which we can commend is the hardihood in supposing that they could possibly succeed.” – L. Hand, J., in US v. Minneci, 142 F.2d 428, 429 (2d Cir. 1944).

3. Anastrophe. (Also known as hyperbaton.) “The inversion of the customary or logical order of words or phrases, especially for the sake of emphasis.” (Garner, at 157-58.) Here are three examples:

“Rules we must have.” – Jerome Frank, Courts on Trial 411 (1949).

“On the words you use, your client’s future may depend.” – Lord Denning, The Discipline of Law 5 (1979).

“Constitutional choices must be made; to all of us belongs the challenge of making them wisely.” – Laurence H. Tribe, Constitutional Choices vii (1985).

4. Alliteration.  Another personal favorite. Frankly, I probably overuse it. Alliteration is “[T]he noticeable or effective repetition of similar sounds, either in the vowels (assonance) or in the consonants (consonance).” (Garner, at 165.)

Here are a couple of good examples:

“The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Common Law 5 (1881).

“A quarter century has wrought no revolution among the professional purveyors of pretentious poppycock . . .” Fred Rodell, Goodbye to Law Reviews–Revisited, 48 Va. L. Rev. 279, 286 (1962).

Should you attempt to incorporate alliteration, anastrophe, irony or metaphor into letters or briefs? That is more than a rhetorical question. The answer depends on whether you’re comfortable and confident that a particular figure works. Only use a figure if it seems to fit naturally. If you have to “shoe horn” it, it’s probably better left out.


Give Your Brief Headings The Marquee Treatment

tumblr_ltmd0vqgS81qbrdf3o1_500A colleague who recently passed the California Bar Examination hosted a group of us to a round of drinks and the talk turned to bar examination grading. Specifically, how little time the graders spent on each essay (I think it was a matter of seconds). Our group included a lawyer who had worked briefly as a tutor to recent (or not so recent) law school grads on how to pass the bar. I learned for the first time how much emphasis is placed by the graders on headings, or portions of exam answers that are underlined or set apart some other way. She explained that, because the graders spend such a minimal time on each essay, headings or other highlighted matter take on a special importance.

I’ve been told this is not so unlike the limited time and attention some judges and their clerks spend reading legal briefs, underscoring the importance of well-chosen and composed headings. I seem to recall hearing somewhere that some judges and clerks sometimes go no deeper in a brief than a review of the headings.

Obviously, then, headings can be particularly important in legal writing. I consulted legal writing guru Bryan Garner’s The Elements of Legal Style, and found that he offers three issues/rules to keep in mind when crafting headings and subheadings. Here’s what he says:

“1. Do not rely on headings to provide transitions. You still need to prepare the reader–perhaps with a transitional word (therefore) or sentence (That brings us to the final point).

2. Be sure that any headings you use convey a definite message to the reader. A vague or ambiguous heading defeats itself.

3. Shun generic headings, such as ‘Facts’ or ‘Background,’ ‘Analysis,’ and ‘Conclusion.’ These often falsely suggest that the facts are discrete from the analysis, or that the analysis is discrete from the conclusion. Unless you are writing in a medium that requires formulaic headings, such as the ‘Statement of Facts’ in a brief or student memorandum, such headings give the impression that the writing follows a formula. And you may even make it formulaic by failing to analyze what organization best suits your purposes. Make your headings serve your text, not vice versa.” (pp. 77-78)

“In addition,” Garner suggests, “make [headings] . . . uniformly brief.” Id. at 78. My girlfriend in law school worked as a legal secretary (in addition to her full-time law school case load). I recall asking her to show me some professionally written legal briefs from her firm. What struck me was both the brevity and informality of the headings, particularly in contrast to the formal headings we were being taught to write by our legal writing professors (some of whom, I’m thinking, had never actually filed a legal brief with a court). I was stunned by one real world opposition which featured a heading that merely said: “This Motion Is A Complete Waste Of Time.” While I don’t think any reader would find this heading compelling, it does have sense of immediacy–of getting to the point–that the lengthy, formal headings we learned to write in law school sorely lacked, but that most readers appreciate.

Perhaps when we penetrate to the farthest reaches of this era of Twittering Tweet-like communications, where brevity is not only prized, but required, there may come a time when 140 characters is all you get. Better make those headings count!


Useful Tips From A Recent Bench-Bar Conference

4c013d050381f202e20e6a7067004b8dBecause I pay attention to analytics, I know that my most popular posts are those in which I have passed on advice or comments from a judge or judge’s clerk. People apparently find and read my blog because they want to get some inside scoop from the bench, as opposed to my witty, original repartee. Best not quit my day job, I guess.

At any rate, a talented Michigan appellate specialist I know attended a recent appellate bench-bar conference and brought back some wise comments from the judges and court staff, “of which,” as Bob Marley sings, “I’ll share with you.”

1.  When Briefing the Facts.

When briefing the facts, don’t misrepresent the facts or get too argumentative. Eliminate most adjectives in the statement of facts section. Also be wary of including too many facts and dates. Dates that aren’t relevant to the issues to be decided by the appellate court are distracting and tiresome. Also bear in mind that the appellate court rarely needs to know the entire procedural history.

2. When Briefing the Law.

Briefing the law requires honesty. Do not mischaracterize the law generally or the holding or import of a particular case. Strive for economy; view the page limit as an outer limit, not a goal to reach. Another problem specific to appellate briefing is the tendency to raise too many issues. Judges complain that lawyers often fail to recognize and identify the appropriate standard of review. Judges should be treated as “generalists” who may need a primer on the law in the area and a tutorial on the industry involved. Bear in mind the “ABCs” of good brief writing: Accuracy, Brevity and Clarity. Do not attack opposing counsel in the brief.

3. When Arguing Before An Appellate Court.

The judges cited “reading from a prepared text” as among the most common errors in oral argument. Treat the argument as an opportunity for both the lawyers and the judge(s) to be educated. Do not fail to answer the questions the judge(s) actually asked. Be sensitive to “cues” from the bench as to what a judge believes the real or dispositive issue to be. Do not attack opposing counsel in oral argument. If you are lucky enough to be arguing before a state or the US Supreme Court, be prepared to answer the question, “What rule are you asking us to establish?”

There. Now go kick some appellate ass.


Does Style Matter In Legal Writing?

plopWhen we write to a court or to opposing counsel our goal is typically to persuade. When we write to a client, an expert or to a colleague, our aim is primarily to convey information. Is there any room here for style? Is style something we should even bother with, considering many of us are on the clock and a client is paying for our time? After all, do we hire the cab that will take the most scenic route? Who’s going to hire a lawyer because they speak on paper with the eloquence of Shakespeare?

Thankfully for many of us who came to the profession with some interest or background in literature or writing, the answer is yes, style does matter in legal writing. In The Elements of Legal Style, writing guru Bryan Garner reminds us why. He says,

“Legal writers must recognize what other inhabitants of the literary world already know: A good style powerfully improves substance. Good legal style consists mostly in figuring out the substance precisely and accurately, then stating it clearly. Too many of us equate artful writing, or ‘style,’ with the warrior’s cumbersome headdress, pleasing to the eye but irrelevant (perhaps even a hindrance) to the conquest. Music provides the better analogy: Does anyone fail to recognize that a Beethoven symphony becomes a different piece when played by an ensemble of kazoos instead of a major symphony orchestra? The medium is the music. Why should we find it difficult to accept the parallel truth in writing?” (p.4)

In LawyeringJames Freund offers a different take why style should not be an afterthought. He writes,

“It’s not telling any tales out of school to observe that most writing on legal subjects by lawyers–the style, as contrasted with the substance–tends to be extremely dull. There is a pre-packaged, monochromatic quality to the prose that dulls the edges of even the most fascinating issues. It’s almost as if the author were seeking the Somber Seal of Approval, fearful that any injection of sprightliness or creativity into the writing will stamp him as a lightweight thinker or lacking in total dedication to a ponderous profession. And then too, most lawyers are so concerned with the substance of what they’re saying . . . that once having achieved precision, they give little or no thought to style. . . . Whatever merit total sobriety may  have in formal legal documents . . . it strikes me as altogether unnecessary in less formal (and formidable) writings such as letters or memos, where you are attempting to educate or persuade–particularly when your reader is not a lawyer. You may have succeeded in rendering your document clear and concise, but if it’s dry and monotonous the reader may experience difficulty keeping his mind on the subject at hand.” (pp.54-55)

While these may offer compelling arguments in favor of attention to style in legal writing, questions remain, including (1) what exactly does “style” mean in this context, and (2) can too much of it be a bad thing? Because this post was not intended to be book-length, I’ll turn back to Bryan Garner for some brief, but telling, responses. First, he writes this about “style,”

“What is style? We can hardly improve on Jonathan Swift’s formulation, ‘proper words in proper places.’ That focuses on the right level of detail, but it begs questions or propriety. What are proper words, and how do you know when they have been put in proper places?

In judging words and their placement, remember that the character of the writer determines the character of the prose. . . What you say and how you say it reveals your habits of mind. In trying to write your best, you may strive to proportion one part to another and to the whole, to cut out what is useless, to accent what matters most, and to preserve a uniform tone throughout.” (p.5)

Can style be overdone? Absolutely! I suspect most of us know it when we encounter it. A Shakespearean demand letter? A Dantesque jury instruction? Imagine an US District Court law clerk confronting a brief riddled with Faulkner’s poetic, but torturous sentences. While Garner acknowledges that tastes for “grandeur” in legal writing have evolved over time, he describes what is currently in vogue:

“[M]odern readers — even of law books — prefer the Attic style. We like what is plain; we grow impatient with what is fancy. Legal readers admire directness and scorn baroque curlicues.” (p.8)

Well, there’s a starting place. Consider style. Accent that which is important. Cut out what is useless. Strive for proportion. But, at all costs, guard against the baroque curlicue.


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