Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Thursday, February 22, 2018

In Your Brief, Be Brief

In your brief, be brief. Very quippy that advice, isn't it? Yes, and it's easier said than done. In order to write persuasive briefs, remember an important rule from oral argument. Get your point out right away, and never assume your reader will spend as much time on your brief that you will.

As a writer, your job is to bring added value to the product. Make it easy to read, coherent, and comprehensive. In order to accomplish these goals, you'll do your research, make your outlines, revise your drafts, and edit with a red pen. If you've done your job well, your reader will breeze through without a hitch.

This principle applies across the board in litigation: assume you will get very little time at that status conference, at that argument, on that call, at that hearing, or at that trial. But the best trial lawyers realize that such principle does not only apply to oral advocacy.  In your writing, assume that your reader is distracted, busy, and simply will not spend much time on what you write.

All legal readers are busy. Mostly we think of readers we want to impress as including judges, their clerks, managing attorneys, and of course law professors. (In contrast, we want opposing counsel to go weak in the knees). These people generally have much more to do than there is time to do it. They have the experience to know right away if a brief is well written just from an initial glance at a few key places: usually the Table of Contents that provides a wonderful place to outline your case, and then most frequently to a summary section - an Introduction, or Summary of the Argument. These readers have incorporated a first review of these sections because they have become very accustomed to approaching new information by gaining an understanding of the big picture. If your presentation doesn't follow the expected order of information, it will frustrate your reader. No need to make their job any harder.

How do we address this in our writing? We should write our advocacy writings in layers, summarizing the main points as quickly as we can in early layers and building on the layers in the document.This means in a typical trial court brief, we should exploit thoroughly the first advocacy layer of a table of contents. A frightening number of lawyers think tables of contents matter little. They are wrong. I have spoken to far too many judges and clerks who admit that before an argument all they had time to review were the tables of contents of the briefs, or, sometimes, just the table of contents of the reply brief. Your table of contents should be a true, focused summary of argument. If done well, all the reader has to know is your table of contents in order to know your entire argument (if not the nuances of it or the entire story of the case).

Then build from there next approaching an introduction or summary. One irony of producing good legal writing is that you cannot write a good summary until you've written a good discussion or argument, so these tasks must come last in the final draft stage. However, your reader will view the last thing you wrote first. If you've made your process systematic, it will be reflected in your writing, and ultimately produce a solid product that is easy to read.

Even if it were true that your reader isn't already very pressed for time, there is every reason to work hard on your brief so your reader doesn't have to. It goes to the subliminal persuasive value of the case. Alleviating obstacles to understanding the case, and removing frustration from the reader's efforts, will put you on the reader's good side, if not also give your reader another reason to praise your reasoning.

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