Thursday, March 15, 2018
Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
Faulty reasoning undermines the substances of a legal argument as well as the credibility of the advocate. After a quick search of the online briefs available on Westlaw and Lexis, I can safely tell you that several thousand appellate briefs reference logical fallacies—typically as a precursor to a direct refutation of an opposing party’s argument. How many of us these days know our logical fallacies as well as we should?
Beyond calling out opposing counsel for these errors, the wise attorney also tests their own writing to see if they have relied on fallacious thinking. In most logical fallacies, something has gone wrong with the legal syllogism. In a sense, the major premise of a syllogism is a rule, while the minor premise is a fact. The conclusion flows from the application of the rule to the fact. Here is a simple example.
Major premise: The speed limit where defendant was arrested is 45 MPH.
Minor Premise: The working-perfectly radar gun clocked defendant at 63 MPH.
Conclusion: Defendant was speeding
In most logical fallacies, some part of the syllogism fails. There are four major categories of logical fallacies in law. Today’s blog entry goes through the first two groups of common fallacies: the non-sequitur fallacies and the insufficient evidence fallacies. The next Thinking Thursday blog entry will discuss two other categories: shallow thinking and avoidance fallacies.
1.1 The correlation equals causation fallacy commonly appears with statistical analyses. The arguer claims that because A and B appear together A must have caused B. The argument that the MMR vaccine causes babies to develop autism is a classic example of this type of fallacy. This amusing site shows these fallacies taken to the extreme.
1.2 The post hoc fallacy is closely related to the correlation/causation fallacy. The arguer claims that because A occurrence is followed by B occurrence, A’s occurrence must have caused B to occur. For example, after I ate an apple, I won an award—ergo, eating the apple caused me to win the award. In law, this sometimes shows up this way: When Pat drinks, Pat becomes violent. Therefore, Pat’s violence is caused by alcohol. That is a logical fallacy. Alcohol may lower inhibitions but does not cause violence by itself.
2. Insufficient evidence fallacies contain faulty minor premises—faulty because they are false or based in inadequate material. There are three major types of these.
2.1 The hasty generalization fallacy happens when lawyers draw big and general conclusions from too small a sample size or from unrelated evidence. “Climate change has been solved because this winter New Jersey saw frigid temperatures in late December and early January, and because it saw two nor’easter storms in March.” In that example, the weather from one three-month period is being used to argue that a decades-old phenomenon is over or never existed. To show this syllogistically:
Major premise: Climate change is making things warmer
Minor premise (flawed): weather over a three-month period matters to climate change
Conclusion (faulty): Climate change is over or solved.
2.2 The anecdotal evidence fallacy is related to the hasty generalization fallacy. The anecdotal evidence fallacy occurs when there is simply inadequate evidence to support the minor premise.
Major premise: Some cities offer Segway tours of tourist areas.
Minor premise (flawed): I have never seen people on a Segway tour of Philadelphia.
Conclusion (faulty): Philadelphia does not have Segway tours.
2.3 Finally, shallow legal research can lead to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. As a classic example, a person shoots an arrow at a barn wall, and then draws a bullseye around the arrow in the wall. That’s a logical fallacy and happens in the minor premise—i.e. “this is a target with a bullseye.” A Texas sharpshooter fallacy happens when someone builds legal analysis and argumentation around incomplete legal research. Think of this fallacy as related to a confirmation bias—when the legal researcher stops researching when they find a result that demonstrates the governing rule that they want for their client, versus what the rule might actually be.
It is easy enough these days to practice spotting logical fallacies simply by watching television. Many advertisements use fallacious reasoning in the marketing. Politicians will sometimes fall into the logical fallacy trap as well—watching the news for a week or two should net you a few examples. But, most importantly, review your own advocacy for these common errors.
] Thank you to Professor Ken Chestek (Wyoming) and Professor Steve Johansen (Lewis & Clark) for these examples. They come from the upcoming second edition of our co-authored textbook, Your Client’s Story: Persuasive Legal Writing (2d ed. Wolters Kluwer, expected publication date of later this year).
March 15, 2018 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, March 12, 2018
In Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, Bryan Garner and the late Justice Scalia provided their opposing views on the use of footnotes in appellate briefs. Garner advocated for "putting all bibliographic matter . . . in footnotes," but cautioned against putting "any substantive text" or anything "that anyone should have to read" in footnotes. The late Justice Scalia disagreed, stating that the practice doesn't make briefs more readable, since "the careful lawyer wants to know, while reading long, what the authority is for what you say." So the reader will constantly be looking down to the footnotes to find the authorities used by the brief writer.
For the most part, I have agreed with Justice Scalia on this topic, and many of the judges who contributed to the third edition of Winning on Appeal expressed their dislike for footnotes. I generally viewed the footnote approach to be for the convenience of the writer and not the reader.
The Court strongly disfavors footnoted legal citations. Footnoted citations serve as an end-run around page limits and formatting requirements dictated by the Local Rules. Moreover, several courts have observed that "citations are highly relevant in a legal brief" and including them in footnotes "makes brief-reading difficult." The Court strongly discourages the parties from footnoting their legal citations in any future submissions.
Eugene also mentioned a federal appellate judge who told him "You view citations to authority as support for the argument. I view them as often the most important part of the argument."
Eugene's post sparked a little discussion on Twitter regarding footnotes in briefs. I saw at least two judges who disagreed with his conclusion, preferring footnotes in briefs. So what is the right answer? As in most questions involving appellate advocacy the right answer is to follow the conventions of your particular jurisdiction. Has the court (or have judges on the court) said/written/tweeted anything on the issue? If not, perhaps it is time to ask them! I appreciated the judges who weighed into the Twitter discussion, and I think that more interactions like that can lead to better briefs overall.
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Presidents’ Weekend is upon us. Ten score and nine years ago, one of our most eloquent American writers was born. Per Professor Julie Oseid, it’s hard to pin down President Lincoln’s prowess to just one attribute. He was adept at many skills, “including alliteration, rhyme, contrast, balance, and metaphor.” (From her new book, Communicators-in-Chief) In her chapter on Lincoln, however, Oseid focuses on his ability to express a great deal in an economy of words. He developed that style during his 25 years as a trial attorney riding circuit. Collecting his legal writing became a quest for historians, and as a result Lincoln is now the most documented lawyer that we may ever have. You can see some of the work of The Lincoln Legal Papers project online. Oseid summarizes Lincoln’s strategy as not to waste arguments or words, but to use “just the necessary number of those words for essential matters.”
So many of our presidents are known for their rhetorical style that Oseid is able to build a body of work about the takeaways that we, as legal writers, can learn from our bygone leaders. Essays have appeared in Volumes 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 of Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD. Her new book brings together the rhetorical lessons from these five presidents and does so in a way that is very readable in the gestalt.
Lincoln worked hard for his brevity, pondering and editing mercilessly. He was driven by a need for universal comprehension—something every trial lawyer learns to do. His famous second inaugural address was delivered in six minutes. In 701 words he developed a timeless message of reconciliation—and 505 of the words he used were only one syllable long. His notes of his speech showed emphasis on five words, all verbs.
I asked Professor Oseid, and she agreed that Lincoln would have used Twitter masterfully and eloquently. It is interesting to pause for a few minutes and wonder how he would have used the medium. From what we know of his other writings, I strongly believe that he would have lifted it up, and us up in the process. Lincoln keenly understood that intelligent and powerful communications do not depend on vocabulary, but on conveying a theme with precision and organization.
As I celebrate my favorite presidents this weekend, I will be thinking about those legal writing lessons I can learn from them.
Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
Saturday, February 10, 2018
Feel a sore throat coming on? Better go to the doctor. But will it help? If you haven't yet read the many articles explaining how medical practices are often backed by zero evidence that they work, spoiler warning.
A 2013 study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings reviewed 100's of journal articles testing clinical practices across the nation. The result? "146 studies proved or strongly suggested that a current standard practice either had no benefit at all or was inferior to the practice it replaced." An example included telling breast-cancer survivors to stop lifting weights, when in reality, this exercise alleviates symptoms. Dive down this rabbit hole and you might start wondering why we even bother going to the hospital when we're sick.
How can a doctor treat patients based on nothing more than gut intuition and that "it's always been done that way"? For one, tradition: we have always treated a sickness with that practice. For another, researchers theorize that physicians may prescribe treatments because they are "bio-plausible,” in other words, they intuitively seem like they should work. For example, a cardiologist might insert a stint in a narrowed artery—even if studies show that the type of narrowing can’t be helped with a stint—because inserting a stint into a clog is common sense.
These problems of practicing from the gut and tradition are even worse for us lawyers. The practice of law, particularly legal writing, is rife with formalisms and conventions—many lacking not only evidentiary support, but any logical basis whatsoever. Why do we include in our motions paragraphs of useless drivel about every procedural event that has ever occurred in the life-cycle of the case? Why do we write a treatise about the summary judgment standard in our motions, knowing not even the law clerk will read it? Why do we call out the other side for petty mistakes when all evidence suggests that this just makes us less sympathetic to the judge?
One reason is probably the same as it is for doctors: intuition. And like doctors, sometimes there is good reason to ignore our intuition as lawyers. Like when the other side makes a silly argument and our intuition says: "that is so wrong, I must respond to it." If an argument is so wrong, you probably should not be wasting the judge’s time with it. Cognitive science tells us that you are usually better off sticking to what matters.
Also like doctors, we lawyers are creatures of tradition. But unlike medicine, there are few mechanisms in the legal system to tell us when we are doing things wrong. You can draft a bad brief and still get paid by your client. Heck, you can draft a bad brief and still win your case. Neither the judge nor your client is likely to call you out for writing problems. Indeed, we aren’t a great profession at giving feedback in the first place. Lawyers usually comment on others' writing only if it's really bad or really good. And as far recognizing problems that need to change on our own, that is always tough. As Warren Buffet said, "What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”
Granted, it's harder to empirically test which legal arguments work better than others, or whether the oxford comma is all that important in a brief. But consider that persuading through legal writing can be at least some part science. Thanks to phenomenal research within the legal writing community (and otherwise), we are learning more about how humans process complex information. We are learning more about what writing works.
Joe Kimble, one of the leading legal-writing minds out there, has a great article collecting some of the best studies on point—backing up plain language writing practices like using simpler sentences and active voice.
Similar evidence-based work has been around for decades, and the science is only improving. A great example is a phenomenal book (by two fantastic legal writing professors) applying cognitive science to legal writing, backing up a number of writing practices like chunking information. Another, by Jean Sternlight and Jennifer K. Robbennolt, applies psychology to various aspects of legal practice, including legal writing. And this does not begin to touch on all of the exciting work being done to identify writing and persuasion practices that work.
Even without the empirical evidence, you can be better about teasing out what works rather than blindly following intuition and tradition. For one, pay careful attention to feedback from others.
Two types of feedback may be particularly helpful. First, ask your editor to pick only one or two big problems in your document—things you do repeatedly. By focusing your editor on just a couple things, they will pay closer attention (and give you something manageable to work on fixing). Second, ask for feedback on readability, not just suggestions for how to change your writing. This will prevent you from rotely accepting changes, and instead, forces you to learn to fix the problems yourself. Finally, be thoughtful about when and where you ask for feedback. Save it for writing that you put some real work into—and make sure you ask at a time when your editor isn’t too busy.
You can also gather evidence about which practices work by writing more, and in different venues. Say, a blog post. You might find it easier to get feedback and speaking to non-legal audiences will improve your ability to connect with others. Another sign that a practice works is if fantastic writers use it. So steal practices from the good writers in your life.
Take the time to get more eyes on your work, ask for more feedback, and pay attention to what works—you will start to parse the practices that work from those that don’t. Above all, at least question why you use the writing practices that you do.
Joe Regalia is an adjunct professor of law at Loyola University School of Law, Chicago and an attorney at the firm of Sidley Austin, LLP. The views he expresses here are solely his own and not intended to be legal advice. Check out his other articles here.
Thursday, February 1, 2018
Today is St. Brigid’s Day, celebrating propagation and creativity (primarily of women, but let’s interpret this broadly). As professional writers whose jobs entail creativity in problem-solving, it is a good day to stop and audit our own methods of propagating our acts of creativity, namely those of writing. The more we understand how we work as writers, the better we will write.
Professor Pam Jenoff—a Rutgers colleague as well as a New York Times Bestseller author—offers practitioners a way to do this in her short and quite readable article in Legal Communication & Rhetoric’s volume 10, The Self-Assessed Writer. In the article she imports tried-and-true methods from fiction-writing, re-imagined to help the legal writer. To improve our writing and our willingness to write, Professor Jenoff recommends we take a little time to express our work styles, optimized environments, and preferred tasks. Her suggestions for doing this exercise are simple to digest and complete. A few pages into the article she offers us a questionnaire that asks us to think about our most productive writing atmosphere. She also asks us to be honest about our task-preferences in the form of writing challenges and strengths.
I have taken this assessment and asked my students to do the same. In doing so, I have come to terms with the actual what and when of my writing successes, which are somewhat different than what I wish I could report are the what and when. I am great at the re-organizing and revising stages of the writing process and will happily work on that for hours on end with only a few breaks. A lengthy first draft will exhaust me, and to get through, I need to work on it in smaller chunks than I do a revising project. When I take mid-session breaks I know that I need to walk to process the information in my head, and I know that I need a notebook in hand or a voice recorder app at the ready, because I will forget every productive thought I had if I don't preserve it during the walk. I also know that I need two screens and therefore a desktop setup for the first-draft process. Research on one side, draft on the other. I need the same as I reorganize because I find it easier to cut and paste into a new document. If I am in later revising stages, a one-screen laptop works fine. This blog entry was written using the two-screen method. If I wrote it on my laptop you would be reading it as Thinking Saturday.
The point Professor Jenoff makes isn’t that we can always have what we want in our writing milieu. Instead, it’s to understand what is optimal. The further we move from the optimal, the harder our writing process becomes. Conversely, our productivity and the quality of our product increases as we pay ourselves first with an optimized writing process.
Happy St. Brigid’s Day.
Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
Thursday, January 18, 2018
Appellate attorneys must choose not only the right arguments, but also the right moment for the argument. By that, I mean the right time in the world, and the right time in the brief. The idea of opportune moments draws upon a less-taught rhetorical concept, that of kairos.
In Greek myth, two spirits represented different aspects of time: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos, often depicted as an aged man, was the spirit representing the sequential and linear passage of time. Kairos, the spirit of opportune moments—of possibilities—is shown as a young man, floating on air in a circuitous path.  His wings and the long hair growing only out of his face and not on the top or back of his head, symbolizes the need for people to seize him as he approaches, but not after he passed by. In his whirling travel patterns, Kairos—unlike Chronos—may come around again. Thus, the concept of kairos in rhetoric centers on the “opportune moment.” It is the difference between “being in the right time and place” versus the idea that people cannot go backwards in time.
The “opportune moment” concept of kairos has been part of rhetoric since the time of Aristotle, who took the view that the moment in time in which an argument was delivered dictated the type of rhetorical devices that would be most effective. The sophists took a different view: Kairos is something to be manipulated by the presenter as part of adapting the audience’s interpretation of the current situation. Kairos assists in molding the persuasive message the speaker is communicating. Modern rhetoricians hold a middle view—that a presenter must be inventive and fluid because there can never be more than a contingent management of a present opportunity.
The Greek word kairos and its translation “opportune moment” embody two distinct concepts communicated through metaphors. The first concept, the derivation of the “right moment” half of the definition, is temporal. Greek mythology concentrated the spirit on the temporal. That is, the right time in the history of the world. For lawyers, that is important to know when making a policy argument. Is this the right moment in the trajectory of chronological time to make a particular policy argument. Will it persuade? Appellate attorneys who write civil rights and other impact-topic briefs will immediately understand what I am talking about. There is a right moment in history to make an argument. Some of the most important cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court depended on the timing of the case—the kairos.
In an article about creating kairos at the Supreme Court, and published in the Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, Professor Linda Berger has written about the idea of kairos and suggests that temporal metaphors are still useful, because they help explain why today’s dissent in an opinion may become tomorrow’s majority decision. In her analysis, she demonstrates that what may look like a missed or lost opportunity to persuade may still have an impact. A snagged thread in the fabric of the law, which, at an opportune later time, can be pulled to unravel the existing fabric of the legal sky when the opportune moment comes around again.
But, the second half of the kairos definition—the opportunity—deals with the spatial. To seize the opportunity at the right time requires one to communicate in the right place and under the right circumstances. Rhetoricians commonly use visualizations of the penetrable openings needed for both the successful passage of the arrows of archery through loopholes in solid walls, and the productive shuttles of weaving through the warp yarns in fabric, as a way to describe the spatial aspect of kairos. Modern rhetoric takes these metaphors and elaborates, defining kairos as “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.”The idea is one of force and power.
For appellate attorneys, this represents the “where” an argument is placed in the internal whole of the document. The kairos of the legal writing. That depends, of course, on the overall narrative structure of the argument, the positions of emphasis in the beginnings and closings of sections and paragraphs, and the lasting imagery the writer wants the readers to walk away remembering. It is, as Professor Scott Fraley has noted in his Primer on Essential Classical Rhetoric for Practicing Attorneys, the idea that the writer understands the right moments “at which particular facts or arguments are inserted into the argument or presentation of the case.” He calls kairos, “the art of knowing when . . . to make the winning argument.” In other words, the strategic advocate spends time thinking about the persuasion of time.
 Some of this entry relies on language I wrote in an article on a different topic. Ruth Anne Robbins, Three 3Ls, Kairos, and the Civil Right to Counsel in Domestic Violence Cases, 2015 Mich. L. Rev. 1359 (2015). For the background on Kairos and kairos, I rely on these works: Carolyn R. Miller, Kairos in the Rhetoric of Science, in A Rhetoric of Doing: Essays on Written Discourse in Honor of James L. Kinneavy 310, 312–13 (Stephen P. Witte, Neil Nakadate & Roger D. Cherry eds., 1992); James Kinneavy & Catherine Eskin, Kairos in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, 17 Written Comm. 432, 436–38 (2000); and Eric Charles White, Kaironomia: on the Will-to-Invent 13–15 (1987).
 Francesco Salviati, Kairos (1552-1554) (fresco); picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFrancesco_Salviati_005-contrast-detail.jpg
Saturday, January 6, 2018
I am pleased to welcome Professor Patrick Barry of the University of Michigan Law School to our blog for this guest post. Patrick and I clerked together, and he is one of the finest writers and teachers I know. We are excited to have him as a guest this week.
"If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers — Homer, Dante, Shakespeare — are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures."
— William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (1959)
Details matter. Pick the right ones, and you can influence all kinds of decision-makers. Justice Sonia Sotomayor realized this when she was still a prosecutor in New York City back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When crafting questions to ask witnesses at trial, she made sure to include ones that would, as she explains in her autobiography My Beloved World, “elicit details with powerful sensory associations — the colors, the sounds, the smells that lodge an image in the mind and put the listener in the burning house.”
She treated courtroom storytelling the same way. “Before you can engage the jurors’ empathy,” she writes, “put them in the shoes of the accused or victim, make them feel the cold blade against their necks, or the pang of unappreciated devotion that might drive someone to steal from a former employer.”
“It is the particulars,” she insists, “that make a story real.”
Mary Karr offers similar advice in The Art of Memoir, a book based on a creative writing class she teaches at Syracuse University. “A great detail,” in her view, “feels particular in a way that argues for its truth.” This may be why expert storytellers, legal and otherwise, seek out specific images and examples when trying to communicate their ideas. Lisa Blatt, who has argued over 30 cases in the Supreme Court, made strategic use of the following set of details in her winning brief in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, a custody battle that garnered national attention in 2013 and eventually led to Blatt’s clients being reunited with the four-year-old daughter they had adopted at birth. The quoted material is from Blatt’s opening brief.
- The adoptive mother has “a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and develops therapy programs for children with behavioral problems.”
- The adoptive couple had already “undergone seven unsuccessful attempts at in vitro fertilization.”
- The adoptive couple “were in the delivery room during the delivery.”
- The adoptive father “cut the umbilical cord.”
Are any of these details legally relevant? Probably not — at least in the strictest definition of that term. The Indian Child Welfare Act, which was the governing statute in the case, says nothing about development psychology or therapy sessions or being “in the delivery room.” Nor does any line of applicable precedent.
But that doesn’t mean the details Blatt includes are not relevant in other ways. One thing they do quite well is communicate that the adoptive couple is deeply committed to becoming parents, a key factor in any custody case, regardless of the statute and precedent involved. Nobody who endures “seven unsuccessful attempts at in vitro fertilization” is still on the fence about raising a child.
The details also show that the adoptive couple has the capacity to help a child deal with the difficulties, even trauma, of enduring a multi-year lawsuit. Telling the justices that the adoptive mother has a “Ph.D. in developmental psychology” would have been good enough; adding, as Blatt does, that the adoptive mother also has experience developing “therapy programs for children with behavioral problems” is an excellent extra bit of advocacy.
Finally, the details reveal that the birth mother trusts the adoptive couple so completely that she invited them to be “in the delivery room during the delivery.” The adoptive father was even the one who “cut the umbilical cord.”
Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the majority opinion in the case, put special emphasis on this last detail when ruling for Blatt’s clients. “Adoptive Couple was present at Baby Girl’s birth in Oklahoma on September 15, 2009,” he wrote, “and Adoptive Father even cut the umbilical cord.” When that happens, when justices or judges pick up, indeed highlight, a compelling detail from your brief, good things usually follow. Your words, your framing, are now planted in their minds.
Indeed, a legal brief is nothing without convincing, evocative details. Nor is a business plan, project proposal, or cover letter. Good lawyers know that if you want to persuade someone to take a certain action or adopt a specific viewpoint, you better have something vivid and concrete to get their attention.
The writer John Updike summed up this point well when he explained, back in 1985, his criteria for selecting that year’s best short stories written by American authors. “I want —perhaps we all want—facts . . . I can picture.”
For more on the power of the particular, check out these short videos from a writing workshop I gave to law students at the University of Michigan.
Patrick Barry teaches at the University of Michigan Law School. He is the author of the forthcoming book Good with Words: Writing and Speaking and the curator of Good Sentences, a digital library premised on the idea that to write good sentences, you need to read good sentences.
Thursday, January 4, 2018
Extra! Extra! In a Post-Facts World, Facts Still Matter!
Yesterday, Slate published an important cover story written by Daniel Engber, LOL, Something Matters, in which he assures readers that facts still have power. In it, he outlines and reviews some of the scientific studies, old and new, that have analyzed the effects of presenting facts to counter false beliefs. There’s good news in the most recent studies. Facts do have an effect on debunking false information or myths.
The new science supporting the importance of factual persuasion, ironically has its own factual persuading to do. People who know a little bit about the science of managing adverse material typically rely on a small sample-size study conducted by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions. Two years prior to its actualy publication, the study was written up in mass-consumption media as part of the 2008 election fever. The stories tended to make dire predictions that fact-checking news stories would end up rallying people to become more firmly entrenched in their beliefs in the falsehoods. This phenomenon was termed the “backfire” or “boomerang” effect. Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-facts” as the 2016 word of the year, based in part on these studies.
Graduate students at different universities became interested in the Nyhan-Riefler paper, and attempted to replicate them, to no avail. The new studies were 103 times larger than the studies done by Nyhan and Riefler. One set of graduate students used over 10,000 test-subjects and another graduate student group used almost 4,000. The data tended to show the opposite: none of the conditions resulted in any evidence that people adhered to their views when presented with facts that showed the opposite was true. Rather, the studies showed that the test-subjects were more likely to adapt their views to better fit the facts.
Rather than challenge the new science, essentially debunking theirs, the original scientists, Nyhan and Riefler collaborated with one of the other sets of researchers to conduct new studies. The foursome posted a 60-page article in the summer of 2017, The Effect of Information on Factual Beliefs and Candidate Favorability,  concluding that people are willing to update factual beliefs when presented with “counter-attitudinal informaton.” However, they further concluded that updated factual beliefs might have only minimal effects on attitudes towards a political candidate. The very creators of the backfire/boomerang effect have questioned—some might say debunked—their own previous work. And the Slate article has set out to help publicize the new studies. Facts still matter.
So, what does the appellate lawyer take from all of this? Well, two things. First: the new studies give credence to the idea that the better way to manage adverse material is to disclose and refute it, rather than ignore it. Kathy Stanchi, a Professor of Law at Temple University has advised this in her germinal article, Playing With Fire: The Science of Confronting Adverse Material in Legal Advocacy. As cited in Professor Stanchi’s article, other scientists have suggested ways to confront adverse material—to immediately refute it when mentioned.
Second, the wise appellate lawyer, turns to one of the resources that Daniel Engber cited in the Slate article, John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, The Debunking Handbook, available for free download (7 pages). The handbook offers an “Anatomy of an effective debunking” on page 6. The last of the advisory elements is to present information graphically, so I will end this blog post with a chart.
Elements, per handbook
Explanation in handbook
Refute by emphasizing the key facts. This will create a gap in the knowledge of the audience—a hole where the falsities used to take up space
This isn’t said in the text of the handbook, but the examples do mention a need for the key facts to present as a cohesive, alternative narrative.
Before mentioning the myth or falsehood, provide textual or visual cues that upcoming information is false
In legal writing-ese, this advice suggests that the writer mention the myth only after presenting the true facts. That gives the truth the position of emphasis in a subsection or paragraph.
Any gaps left by the debunking needs to be filled. Achieve this by providing an alternative causal explanation for why the myth is wrong (and perhaps why the falsities spread).
This isn’t said in the text of the handbook, but the examples do mention a need for alternative explanation to present as a cohesive, alternative narrative. In other words, story persuades. Stories are organizational scaffolds that present information as cause à effect
Core facts should be displayed graphically, if possible.
For lawyers, the legal reasoning may also be presented with infographics. But, not all infographics are useful infographics--some are merely decorative and others might be off-point. The writer must always balance the usefulness with the impact on persuasion. For more on this, see Steve Johansen and Ruth Anne Robbins, Art-icuating the Analysis: Systemizing the Decision to Use Visuals as Legal Reasoning, 20 Legal Writing 57 (2015).
 32 Political Behavior, 303 (2010). The study used 130 undergraduate students at a Catholic university. These students were split among four different modules. Id. at 312.
 Brendan Nyhan, Ethan Porter, Jason Reifler, and Thomas Wood, Taking Corrections Literally but not Seriously? The Effect of Information on Factual Beliefs and Candidate Favorability (June 29, 2017), available on SSRN at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2995128 (last accessed January 3, 2018).
 60 Rutgers L. Rev. 381 (2008).
 Id. at 390–92.
January 4, 2018 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, December 16, 2017
What they say about cross examining and depositions is also true for legal writing: asking the right questions is how you get the right answers. But legal writing is trickier — because instead of asking questions directly, you have to convince your reader to ask them for you.
That’s because reading is solitary. When we read something, we have the luxury of re-framing the questions as we go. We don't need to ask the questions that the author asked. And the big questions often don’t spring from the page at all: they are followup questions formed as we chew on ideas.
Early on as law students, we are told something about questioning. The infamous IRAC writing mold, for one, is really just a simple question and answer. You identify the issue — a question about whether a rule applies to a set of facts — then you offer an answer by explaining the rule and applying it. And we also learn a lot about the law through the Socratic method, which is pure questioning and answering.
But most of us don’t think about asking questions when we write a legal document. Indeed, in your brief, you might not ask your reader any direct questions. The thing is, for your reader making the decisions, it’s all about the questions. That is how we humans process information. We ask whether the propositions we read make sense. We ask whether another proposition might make more sense. We ask whether the question posed is even the right one to ask in the first place.
Practically, it’s easy to lose control of which questions your reader is asking when they read your document. A simple issue, like whether a company is liable when one of its workers gets in a brawl with a customer, will spawn tons of new questions for your reader to answer. Some you will expect and are straight-forward; many you will outright pose to your reader as you work through the issues. For example: “Was the defendant an employee?” and “Was he acting within the scope of his employment?"
But as you get into the details, it becomes harder and harder to control the questioning process. Your reader will be asking: “What type of worker should we treat as an employee?” "Does that seem fair?" And so on. You will anticipate some of these tough questions, but it takes a lot of work and careful thought to anticipate them all (and better yet, to ensure your reader doesn’t start asking new questions that will lead them to a bad answer for you).
The power of of your reader’s questions throughout the reading process is profound. Say you represent a company who gave confusing instructions to a worker, which resulted in an accident. If after reading your brief and the opposing party’s brief, your reader asks: “Shouldn’t an employer be liable when the worker was simply doing what she was told?”— you might as well call it in.
But if you guide your reader to a different question instead, you might be getting somewhere: “Isn’t it unfair to hold a company liable when a worker knew the instructions were confusing and never asked the company for guidance—which would have easily prevented the harm?”
Now the how-to. To get your reader to ask the right questions, you first need to figure out the right answers. It’s not all that different from cross examining or deposing a witness. You write out the admissions you want first, then the questions come.
These two steps are a refining process. You start with a general question you need the reader to answer. You then do a dance of anticipating your reader’s possible follow-up questions and figuring out how to guide them to the right ones. You have myriad tools in your arsenal to guide readers through this questioning process. You have the law; you have policy; you have your writing style — anything you can use to convince your reader to ask the questions in a way that leads to good answers for your client.
So maybe you start by posing this general question for your reader: “does a three-year or five-year statute of limitations apply to a battery claim?” (knowing you need your reader to answer that it’s three years). A reader given this question will first wonder whether any courts have already addressed which period applies to this sort of claim. If not, your reader might then wonder how courts go about classifying torts under the proper period. Anticipate these questions and guide your reader to the right ones.
Let’s say no courts have directly addressed this question, but you find some authority that suggests assault, which is similar to battery, falls under the three-year period. You might first guide your reader through the self-questioning process like this: “No courts have held that battery falls under the three-year period.” You are anticipating the reader’s first question and quickly guiding them to where you want to go. Your reader’s next question will be: “Ok, then how do courts figure out which period applies to a new tort?”
Now you come to a crucial part of the questioning process: getting your reader to ask themselves a very narrow and specific question about the law; a question that will likely govern the outcome.
In the U.S. Supreme Court’s individual-mandate case, for example, how parties framed the commerce clause question was crucial: “Doesn't the commerce clause bar Congress from forcing people to buy things?” Or instead: “Doesn't the Clause allow Congress to regulate a market that all of us are already a part of — the healthcare market?” Both questions were reasonable, and each would lead to a different result. Which question judges and justices chose depended largely on how the lawyers guided them.
Getting back to our statute-of-limitations example, you have that caselaw suggesting assault falls under the three-year period. And you know assault is similar to battery. So you want your reader to ask themselves this question: “Which tort is similar to battery?” Because we know that answer will be a good one for us.
Your questioning process might unfold like this: “Which period applies to a tort turns on whether the tort is more similar to the torts falling under the three-year period, or instead, more similar to torts falling under the 5-year period.” You’ve now primed your reader to ask the right question: “Which tort is battery most like?” And because this was all part of our plan, we know the answer: assault (triggering the three-year period we wanted).
There are lots of ways to push your reader towards the right questions. Sometimes it’s as easy as just writing the question for them: “The crucial question is whether battery is like assault.” Or you can be more subtle, using rhetorical questions or hypotheticals. Justice Kagan is a master of guiding readers to the right questions like this.
For example, in Justice Kagan’s dissent in Lockhart v. U.S., she posed a question to her readers:
Suppose a real estate agent promised to find a client “a house, condo, or apartment in New York.” Wouldn’t the potential buyer be annoyed if the agent sent him information about condos in Maryland or California?
Justice Kagan wants the reader to ask themselves this question outright — and she knows there is no bad answer for her position.
Judge Jennifer Dorsey, a fantastic writer in the U.S. District Courts, loves crafting the perfect questions for her readers, like this gem (which leads off an entire section of one of her orders):
The threshold question: can Carrion raise a Johnson challenge under § 2255 when the sentencing judge did not expressly state that he relied on the residual clause?
Judge Dorsey is also a master of the hypothetical-string of questions, like she deftly uses in this order:
Did defendants make material statements to him, or does he just believe they did? Who made them? When? And what was false about them?
Judge Jay Bybee of the Ninth Circuit is similarly sensitive to this questioning process, directly posing a series of questions for his reader to ask in this section of an opinion:
If we insist on reading “not less than 7 days” to mean “not more than 7 days,” why should anyone reading our opinions trust that he understands them correctly? If words are so malleable, might we routinely read our own precedents as saying the opposite of what they clearly say? May one panel simply rewrite another panel’s opinion when it thinks the prior opinion is “illogical?” And where might our creativity lead us with provisions of the Constitution that don’t make as much sense as we would like? May we amend even the Constitution at will? If we think that when Congress says “less” it actually means “more,” we should not fault anyone who might, as a result, discount other things that we have written.”
Justice Gorsuch is also aware of the importance of questioning, often framing legal issues with discrete questions for his reader — and expressly guiding his reader to the questions he wants them to ask:
The narrow question raised by this pretrial motion is whether, if Antoine Watts is convicted of possessing with intent to distribute five grams or more of crack cocaine, the court will be compelled to impose a minimum . . .
The broader question is whether federal courts will be required, for the next five years, to perpetuate a congressionally recognized injustice . . .
Judge Patricia Wald is a master of setting up carefully-constructed, nuanced legal questions that will guide her reader to the answer she wants:
This case presents a straightforward, but nonetheless hard, question of law: Has the United States waived sovereign immunity for a back pay award to an individual denied federal employment in violation of his constitutional rights?
And perhaps one of the best examples of how a simple question can frame an entire way of looking at an issue: Kathleen Sullivan’s brief in SEC v. Siebel:
“Is someone riding around a golf course from shot to shot really a golfer?”
At bottom, the important thing to remember is that any critical reader will process your writing by self-questioning. So anticipate those questions and answer them. But better yet, figure out how to guide your reader to good questions in the first place.
Joe Regalia is an adjunct professor of law at Loyola University School of Law, Chicago and an attorney at the firm of Sidley Austin, LLP. The views he expresses here are solely his own and not intended to be legal advice.
Saturday, December 9, 2017
We are taught that writing with the infamous IRAC moniker is easy, you just: (1) identify the issue (a question about whether a rule applies to facts) (2) explain how the rule works, (3) discuss how this rule applies to the facts, and (4) finish with a brief conclusion that explains how everything comes out. Sounds good in theory, but real life is too messy for IRAC (or IREAC, CREAC, or any other acronym).
After all, you can rarely answer a legal question in a single, simple: Issue/rule/application/conclusion format. Once you dig into a generic, black-letter rule, more issues spawn—more questions about how parts of the rule apply to your facts. A simple issue, like whether a company is vicariously liable for a worker’s tort, can birth tons of “sub” issues. For example: “Was Jory an employee?” and “Was he acting within the scope of his employment?” So where is our trusty IRAC now? Is it: IRIIAC?
The truth is, IRAC isn’t a perfect framework—a perfect framework doesn’t exist. But IRAC can be a powerful tool if you apply its principles and stop getting hung up on the moniker. To make IRAC more useful, we suggest you think about it a bit differently—in particular, the I and the R parts.
Let’s start with the I. The term “issue” often troubles legal writers. What, exactly, is an issue? To make the concept of an issue more useful, consider both its definition and practical use. An issue is simply: “any legal question about how a rule applies to a set of facts.” So: “Did Jory commit battery?” is an issue, as is “Does the relation-back doctrine apply to the defendant’s complaint?” In other words, “issue” is a fancy label for any legal question.
More important is what we do with issues—what’s the point of giving a legal question this special name? It’s all about signposting. We refer to issues just to remind our reader that when we analyze rules and facts, we should start by telling them which particular rule and set of facts we will next address. It’s an organizational tool, nothing more. So if you need to walk your reader through four overarching legal questions, you roadmap those “issues” for your reader first.
Now for the fun part: the R. We usually learn that the rule section is where you generally explain the rule. But consider a slightly different perspective. What you are really doing here is crafting new and more useful rules for your reader that are fashioned for your case’s facts .
First you take a clunky, black-letter rule that doesn’t cleanly fit yet. After all, black letter rules weren’t made for your case (or any other case in particular). They are a starting point.
Then after researching the law you refine that generic rule into new ones that more closely fit your facts. Think about it like this. You start with a lump of marble—your general rule. You then slowly chisel it into a statue—the more specific and bite-sized rule or rules that cleanly address your facts.
To see why refined rules are better, take a simple example. Imagine your client is sued because one of its employees punched someone during an unapproved break. Which rule is more effective?
A generic rule, like: “An employer is not liable when an employee commits a tort not within the scope of employment."
Or a more refined rule that you crafted yourself:
“This court has consistently held that when an employee takes a break without his employer’s permission, the employer cannot be liable for what the employee does on that break.”
A rule refined for your facts like this boxes in the judge and the other side, making it clear how the rule applies to your facts. Yes, you are explaining your rule. But you are also creating a new rule altogether.
Sounds good, but how exactly do you refine rules like this? There are two ways.
First, you can divide the rule into smaller parts. This allows you to discuss the rule in bite-size chunks (which is a lot easier to apply). Sometimes the benefits of dividing the rule are obvious, like if courts already separate the rule into elements.
Other times, you realize it makes more sense to separately analyze different aspects of the rule even though no court has told you so. For example, maybe you identified two situations where a rule commonly applies, say in cases of intentional behavior and cases of reckless behavior. You could craft two new rules: one for intentional conduct and one for reckless.
When crafting new, smaller rules, you have a few options for organizing how you discuss them. One option is to create separate sections in your document; each section explains and applies the new, refined rule. This works best anytime your new rules require a lot of explanation and application.
Let’s explore an example. You research the law and decide that the defendant can meet the intent rule for battery if either (1) he intended to injure or (2) he was reckless about injuring. You could divide this intent rule into two new rules like this:
"Courts have held that a defendant intended a battery if either (1) he intended to injure or (2) he was reckless about injuring. Here the defendant qualifies under both theories.
Intent to injure
[Explanation of the intent to injure rule]
[Explanation of the reckless injury rule]"
Another option is to discuss your new rules in the same section—and then apply each new rule separately. If you go this route, use separate paragraphs and signposts to tell your reader exactly which rules you are explaining and applying where. Then apply each separate rule in the same order that you explained them. For example, taking the same new rules again:
"Courts have held that a defendant intended a battery if either (1) he intended to injure or (2) he was reckless about injuring. Here the defendant qualifies under both.
Courts have held a defendant intends to injure . . .
As to reckless injury, courts have held . . .
The defendant intended to injure here because . . .
The defendant was reckless here because . . . "
In addition to dividing, you can also refine a rule by adding clarifying details about how the rule works. Anytime it’s not obvious what a rule means, you should consider adding clarifying details to make it clearer. So instead of saying an employee’s conduct must be within the “scope of employment,” you can add detail: “scope of employment, which includes an employee’s specific job duties and anything roughly related to those duties.” By creating more specific rules that fit with your case’s facts, you guide your reader to how the case should come out.
Most important, though, is that good lawyers repeat this rule-refining process as many times as they can. Above we refined the generic, black-letter rule for intent into two new rules—one for intentional acts and one for recklessness. You would want to try to refine these rules again, either by division or adding details about how they work. And once you’ve refined that rule, try to refine it again, on and on. The more specific and bite-sized you can make your rules, the better your reader will understand you (and the more persuasive your writing will be).
Consider your new intent to injure rule. You could refine it by adding clarifying details: “Courts have held that a defendant intends to injure if he wanted to hurt the victim, even in a minor way—he need not intend to commit the injury that the plaintiff actually suffered.”
- An issue is simply a question about whether a rule applies to a set of facts.
- Identifying issues can be helpful because it usually means you should include a signpost for your reader: “Hi reader! Next I am talking about the question of whether the facts here are an intentional battery.”
- The rule explanation process is really about taking charge of rules and refining generic standards into more specific versions that cleanly line up with your facts.
- You can refine rules in two ways: (1) dividing them into smaller rules or (2) adding clarifying details about how the rule works.
- Don’t stop after you’ve refined a rule once. Try to refine it as many times as you can. The more bite-sized your rules and the more cleanly they apply to your case, the more persuasive you’ll be.
Joe Regalia is an adjunct professor of law at Loyola University School of Law, Chicago and an attorney at the firm of Sidley Austin, LLP. Jory Hoffman is an attorney at the firm of Jenner & Block, LLP. The views we express here are solely our own and are not intended to be legal advice.
Thursday, December 7, 2017
Professor Ken Chestek at the University of Wyoming College of Law has created two different empirical studies about persuasion and narrative, using judges as the test subject. For that rarity alone, his scholarship stands out as important for lawyers to read. In his most recent article, Fear and Loathing in Persuasive Writing, he asked the question of whether the “negativity bias,” known to psychologists, works with judges as well as it works with voters. The answer is the standard one you would expect from a lawyer, “it depends.” That the answer isn’t a definitive “no way,” should give us pause as advocates. Our intuitive answer that we naturally graviate towards the positive turns out to be the opposite of how our brains work. Rather, as Chestek writes, “we have a natural inclination to attend to and process negative stimuli.” Scientists posit that we retain negative information longer because the brain processes it more thoroughly—perhaps as a necessary adaption in evolution to keeping ourselves alive. He reviews the science of negativity and implications for lawyers in greater detail in another recent article, Of Reptiles and Velcro: The brain’s “negativity bias” and Persuasion
In his eighteen-month empirical study with 163 judicial readers, Chestek used a series of nine appellate brief preliminary statements to test the power of positive versus negative themes in a simulated case file. Four were positive, four were negative, and one was neutral. By themes, Chestek references George Lakoff’s formuation of “deep frames,” an idea Chestek wrote about in his other empirical study about judges and the persuasive power of story (You can read a snippet of George Lakoff’s framing concepts here).
Ultimately, Chestek’s concludes that the results don’t provide bright-line answers, but instead point towards complexity. Positive themes seem to focus the judges’ attention on the state of the governing law whereas negative themes focus their attention more on the nuances of the facts. He also found that negative themes work better for a David facing Goliath rather than vice versa.
This phenomenon has significant implications for written legal advoacy, starting with theme selection. That strategy should factor in the strength of the legal position or the facts. Second, the negativity bias might lead an advocate to phrase policy arguments in terms of avoiding bad outcomes instead of promoting good outcomes, since the judge may process the negative statement more thoroughly. And, finally, the negativity bias suggests that it is critically important to understand the negative facts of your client’s case and the ways they can or cannot be managed.
 For more on the persuasiveness of Preliminary Statements, see Steve Johansen’s article, Coming Attractions: An Essay on Movie Trailers and Preliminary Statements, and Maureen Johnson’s article, You Had Me at Hello: Examining the Impact of Powerful Introductory Emotional Hooks Set Forth in Appellate Briefs Filed in Recent Hotly Contested U.S. Supreme Court Decisions.
 Base photograph by Kenneth D. Chestek—photography is one of his hobbies.
Thursday, November 9, 2017
In a recently released Maryland Law Review article entitled Do Muddy Waters Shift Burdens?, Professors Carrie Sperling and Kimberly Holst walk readers through the history of what was supposed to be one of the country’s most progressive laws allowing post-conviction DNA testing for inmates whose cases did not originally involved that type of evidence. Article 64.03 in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure created a uniform process for inmates to petition courts for testing, asking inmates to show, “a reasonable probability that he or she would not have been prosecuted or convicted if DNA testing had provided exculpatory results.”Criminal attorneys will recognize the “reasonable probability” test as a well-established standard that courts interpret as a probability that sufficiently undermines confidence in the case’s result.
Nevertheless, Texas courts have latched onto a metaphor introduced by the Texas Court of Criminal appeals a few years after the statute was enacted. That court first found ambiguity in the standard despite its years of interpretation in other contexts. Instead, that court held, the standard must be interpreted to require inmates to show, with reasonable probability, that the DNA testing would prove a convicted person’s innocence. The defendant in the case did not meet that burden, but showed only that DNA testing would “merely muddy the waters.” Despite the Texas Legislature returning to the statute to clarify its intent, Professors Sperling and Holst found that courts continue to use the metaphor as a statement of the governing rule of law.
Doctrinal metaphors abound in our case precedents. The most famous are found in evidentiary analysis, “fruit of the poisonous tree,” and in civil procedure, “long-arm” statutes. Many doctrinal metaphors are extremely useful in helping frame our thinking about more abstract principles. But, in the situation spotlighted by these two professors, a doctrinal metaphor might be harmful or even a misstatement of the law. What should a lawyer do in that situation?
The answer lies in part in a separate article, this one published by the Mercer Law Review and republished in a monograph, written by Professor Michael Smith, Levels of Metaphor in Persuasive Writing. In that article, Professor Smith advises attorneys to challenge the metaphor directly, a strategy he calls the Cardozo Attack. Justice (then Judge) Cardozo warned other jurists that creative metaphors involved with corporate law, “piercing the corporate veil,” should be used only very carefully and not to the exclusion of more accurate, albeit literal, language. Professor Smith’s article details two examples of successful attacks on doctrinal metaphors.
Both articles spend some time explaining the cognition of metaphor use, which is reason enough to read these two pieces. Beyond that, the articles offer an important lesson for appellate attorneys. First, we must be aware of the notion that metaphoric language is just that: a comparison of two seemingly incongruent things to help readers form connections. By themselves, doctrinal metaphors do not necessarily form the backbone of substantive law. Second, we should spend time in our lawyering process unpacking these metaphors in the event that they conflict with the actual and governing tests. In the event they do, it is incumbent upon us, as part of our client representation, to address the metaphor itself as part of a persuasive argument chain.
Thursday, October 26, 2017
What is the narrative climax in the Little Red Riding Hood fable? When the wolf eats Little Red. But what is the visual impact moment? The image you think about when you recall the story? That’s
probably different. It’s either an image of a little girl in a red cape, walking through the woods or it’s the moment when Little Red first sees the wolf in Granny’s bed, wearing Granny’s nightclothes. The visual impact moment can be different from the story’s climax.
Jason Eyster writes about visual impact moments in one of my all-time favorite articles in the Applied Legal Storytelling canon. His article, The Lawyer as Artist, in Vol. 14 of the Journal of Legal Writing, explores the use of scene and setting as a persuasive tool for legal writers. This article is creative, and always fresh. It is one that I re-read and think about at least once or twice a year. The idea of the setting isn’t often discussed in the persuasion literature, but, as Eyster argues, can create lingering impressions. The legal writer who takes time during a description to linger on choice details will make the scene “pop” for the reader those visual images will provoke a natural, emotional response. The visual impact scene need not be the climax, but should connect to the case theme. If you can connect it to the theory of the case, all the better.
So, how do you do it? Eyster offers one idea: the obtuse object. That is something unexpected or incongruous with a scene that draws in the reader through a natural curiosity. In one of his examples, an asylum case, the legal writer zeroes in the description of his client, sitting in her former home and eating a pomegranate just before hearing a sinister knock on her door—one that results in her being dragged away by militia in her country. The simple mention of the pomegranate serves to draw the reader into the scene. It evokes the famous Persephone myth of a young woman dragged into hell while her mother tries to have her released. The scene is made all the more emotional for its layers of meaning.
Think about the scene in your client’s case that you hope the judicial panel will likewise remember when they put down the brief. Is it the scene you want? If it’s the same scene your opponent might choose, think of another one. If it is the scene you want, have you chosen some memorable detail to describe—an action, an object, a character, or the setting itself. Describe it with a name, sensory information, its function, its history, or a metaphor. Things like this put joy and art into the job of legal writing.
Saturday, October 14, 2017
Have you heard the secret to being a brilliant writer—appellate or otherwise? Because there is one. An ancient trick used by all the greats, from Justice Kagan to Stephen King. Use this device, and your writing will improve tenfold overnight. And it’s so simple: just edit well. That’s it. Learn to edit well and your writing will be better than you thought possible.
Now, let me be clear: I’m not talking about the quick proofread you do before sending a motion to the partner. I’m not talking about your 5-minute scan for typos, or your last-minute cite-check. I’m talking about strategic, measured, science-based editing.
Before we get to the how, let’s talk about the why. Psychology tells us a lot about why you might not be editing right. One insight is that our mind is easily overwhelmed when we try to do too much at once. And that counts for editing, too. So if you try to edit for too much, too fast, your “working memory” gets overloaded and you miss things. You need a strategy for breaking up your editing into chunks, or phases, to make sure that you get all the important stuff in.
Another insight from the world of psychology is that we know more about good writing in the abstract than we ever put into practice. For example, studies show that incoming 1Ls know a good deal about grammar rules—but that they fail to incorporate much of this knowledge in their writing projects. Lawyers are no different. So you need a strategy for taking these writing tools that you know in theory (or will pick up in the future) and incorporating them into everyday writing habits that you will actually use.
Finally, let’s talk about bias. You’re biased; I’m biased; we’re all biased. The best you can do is become aware of your biases and use some strategies to counter them. Two biases that plague us lawyers are advocacy bias and what I call trench bias. Advocacy bias you probably know: it’s that growing certainty that your client, or your position, is right. That inability to see the value in the other side’s arguments. This sort of bias is insidious, and you must counter it to be a good lawyer.
Trench bias can be just as bad: it’s the bias you get when you’re fighting in the trenches and lose sight of the battlefield. It’s the bias that comes from being steeped in the same case, the same facts, the same law for months. With this bias in force, your writing is full of jargon. You forget to give your reader enough context or background so that they understand where you are and where you’re going. Even the best lawyers struggle with this.
To sum up: (1) you need to force yourself to break editing sessions into manageable chunks; (2) you need to not merely learn new writing moves, you need to turn them into habit; and (3) you need to counter your biases. I have good news. With a few simple editing habits, you can handle these challenges and more.
First, check the box.
If you want to edit well, checklists are a must. Good writers edit for tons of writing moves before they send a document out the door. Not just the easy ones, like passive voice—but things like transitions, sentence balance, sentence length, concrete verbs, and much, much more. There is simply no way to track all of this without a checklist. Especially when you pick up new writing moves. Say you’re reading a brief and say to yourself “Wow! I love the way he uses short, pithy sentences to end his sections.” Now fast-forward a week later. You’re working late on a brief. You’re stressed and tired. Do you think you’ll remember to try out that new short-sentence idea? Probably not. But if you put it on a checklist that you run through before finalizing your document, you will.
And when you create your checklist, make sure that you separate your editing into multiple phases. Again, trying to edit for too many things simultaneously isn’t manageable. So edit for a handful of moves at each sitting. Perhaps on your first edit look for substantive problems such as a fact you forgot to explain or an unsupported rule. On your next editing round, you can hit big-picture style points such as ensuring you have roadmaps and transitions. The order doesn’t really matter; what matters is that you are breaking up your editing into manageable bites.
Second, resist the urge to purge.
We all want to push a document out of our mind when we finish a first (or fifth) draft—resist the urge! Get in the habit of leaving your writing for a couple days (or whatever you can manage) and coming back to it later. There is simply no other way to get out of the trench bias and see your writing with fresh eyes. Accountability partners are great for this: wrap up a document and send it to a friend, asking them to take a look and send it back to you in a couple days for your next edit.
Third, use others to get that “fresh-reader” feel.
No checklist can spot everything, though. So find some good writers to be your editing buddies. And I suggest you have them edit for you in a particular way, what I call “one-read” editing. The quality of editors varies, and good chance you won’t agree with many of their recommendations. Not to mention that many an office friendship has been lost over editing quarrels. So instead of asking for substantive or style edits, tell them to put a star next to any (1) word, (2) sentence, or (3) paragraph that they had to read more than once.
This will give you a true snapshot of your document’s readability. With the road bumps identified, you can now use your own writing tools to smooth them over.
Finally, discover your own editing likes.
Great writers all have their own editing tricks, and you might find that some of them work for you, too. Stephen King suggests that you vomit out a first draft without self-editing much, so you can stay focused on the content. Many writers swear by reading drafts out loud and editing their writing in paper form. Some warm up by typing out a few sentences from their favorite authors. A couple studies showed that setting aside time to practice editing helps (either on your own past work or on any writing you can find). Insightful technology tools can help you edit better, too, like Grammarly and Hemingway App.
And I think just about every writer would tell you that it’s essential to find good writing mentors to edit your work so that you can learn from their technique. But most important: just get out there and edit.
I am an adjunct professor of law at Loyola University School of Law, Chicago and an attorney at the firm of Sidley Austin, LLP. The views I express are solely my own and are not intended to be legal advice.
Thursday, October 12, 2017
With the return of autumn and the Supreme Court to session, appellate tweets and listservs turn to . . . did I really see a conversation about citation? Why do attorneys give so much credibility to a book developed and maintained by student law review editors who in the 16th edition accidentally tried to change the substance of precedential value by announcing that every citation needed a signal? (See this article by Dean Darby Dickerson for a discussion about that weird story).
Professor Susie Salmon wants you to know that “perfect citation” isn’t really a beautiful unicorn, and that questing for it has expensive downsides. Her article, Shedding the Uniform: Beyond a Uniform System of Citation to a More Efficient Fit, published last year in the Marquette Law Review, looks at the history of the citation fetish (her turn of phrase, not mine!), the rise of the Bluebook dominance, and the lack of uniformity that actually exists in the legal world. She adroitly observes that teaching and living by “perfect Bluebooking” leads to frivolous classroom and billable hours that would be better spent on richer analysis and representation. Instead, she argues, rationality should prevail. Citation, as she reminds us, exists for three purposes: a finding tool for cited authority, a signal about the weight and vintage of the authority, and credit for the author of the authority. These goals can be met with any system that provides these things with accuracy, brevity, and clarity.
Professor Salmon’s article takes us on an interesting historical tour of citation, beginning with the Roman Justinian texts, through Middle English books, to that fateful 1926 summer, when a clever Harvard 2L first wrote a handbook for his fellow law review classmates and eventually for elite-school law review editors who signed on. The story turns darker in the country’s bicentennial year when the Bluebook editors openly determined to dominate legal citation form. In 1981, the editors finally agreed to acknowledge a difference between law reviews and practitioner documents, but did very little to develop that part of the book until faced with competition by the University of Chicago’s Maroonbook and a challenge by practitioners and law professor themselves—the ALWD Citation Manual/Guide.
And, the fetish of uniformity is expensive. Law professors who choose to spend hours on citation teaching and assessing are taking away from time they could spend teaching more client-centered advocacy skills. Practicing attorneys who devote hours to perfecting citation are costing their clients hundreds or thousands of dollars that might not be justifiable. And, relying on the traditional notions of citation also increase the monopoly that West holds on legal materials, to the detriment of an open-access system of legal information.
Ultimately, Professor Salmon raises excellent points. Uniform citation does not exist. Those very smart law review students who knew the Bluebook backwards and forwards while they were 2L and 3L students very well may be referring to wrong parts of the book when citing inside practitioner documents. And, they might be using a superseded Bluebook, that is, an out-of-date model. There are twenty editions, after all, each with changes. Finally, the existence of local rules in many jurisdictions pose other problems, particularly when the local rules are not widely known or widely available, and have their own internal quirks. Things aren’t likely to get better, because the Bluebook’s continued existence depends on the planned obsolescence of earlier editions. Instead, Professor Salmon recommends what others before her have suggested: public domain citation, development of better apps and programs to check citation form, and flexibility to allow that many formats will satisfy the principles underlying a good citation system.
Sunday, October 1, 2017
Having clerked at the Ninth Circuit and taught appellate and other legal writing for years now, I'm a big fan of the Appellate Advocacy Blog. I'm now delighted to join this outstanding group as a new contributor. In my posts, I plan to focus on my favorite thing: writing. And what better way to start than by talking about the beating heart of any brief. Something that is often neglected by appellate lawyers, and outright excised by trial ones. The introduction.
This is the lynchpin of everything you write as a lawyer. I would wager that whether you win or lose an appeal, or a motion, can more often than not be traced back to your introductions. Let me first convince you that you should be spending way more time on this section of your documents. Then I have some ideas about how to write good ones.
First off, introductions signal to a judge something profound: that the lawyer can help the judge write a better opinion. When you think about it, briefs are just cheat-sheets for a judge to use when writing their own documents. Supreme court and circuit opinions are chock full of phrases and concepts stolen from good lawyers. If you don’t convince the judge that your brief is worth stealing from, chances are they won’t give it a second glance. After all, they have an opinion to write. Lawyers often forget that there is no rule requiring judges to use briefs, or even finish reading them. You must convince the judge that you’re worth paying attention to.
Another way to think about introductions is to see your brief for what it is: a conversation with a judge. It’s a bit odd because your side of the conversation is prerecorded. But make no mistake, it’s a conversation. Your judge is responding to every word in your document. They’re asking questions. They’re arguing back. They’re criticizing. Hopefully, they’re agreeing.
If we take what we know about good conversations and apply it to writing, the importance of introductions becomes obvious. For starters, first impressions are everything when we meet a stranger. They shape how we perceive the speaker, how we gauge their credibility, their intelligence, their trustworthiness, and, ultimately, their competence.
For another, our ability to follow a conversation usually depends on how well the speaker frames the topic and organizes their thoughts at a high level. If the speaker launches into the details without giving some context, the listener is quickly lost.
And think about how quickly you tune out someone who drones on and on in a conversation without ever getting to the point. Same here. Many busy judges are skimming readers, which means that they might not read much past the introduction. Particularly if you bore or confuse them.
Cognitive science also has a lot to say about introductions. This science sheds light on how readers process the things they read. And it leaves no doubt that your introduction is crucial. Take the concept of priming. Readers are more likely to believe a point that they were well primed for earlier in a document (such as in the introduction). Or take the concept of chaining, which tells us that the way you organize and present your points influences whether your reader will believe you. The self-consistency and self-observation principles suggest that if you sell your judge in the introduction, they will subconsciously see everything that comes after in a better light. And the concept of fluency suggests that the readability of your introduction plays a role in whether your reader’s more skeptical modes of thinking are triggered—or whether, instead, your reader will be persuaded. Each of these cognitive science principles agree: good introductions are a key component of good legal writing.
And perhaps most important, a good introduction forces you to distill your understanding of complex issues into simple prose. After all, until you can explain the key points of your document in a short, clean introduction, you don’t understand them as deeply as you need to. Put in the work to write a phenomenal introduction and you might actually say something clear enough to stick in a judge’s mind.
Hopefully I’ve convinced you introductions are important. Now let’s talk about some concrete ways to put these principles into practice.
- Make your reader like you. Dozens of studies across disciplines agree that if your reader likes you, you are much more likely to persuade them. There are a few simple tactics here. Make yourself credible by conceding small issues. And when a legal or factual question is a tough one, say so. Your judge will already be struggling, so you might as well be sympathetic. Thinking through simple ways to help your reader is also great--such as using clear roadmaps and summaries. Another fantastic trick is to directly dialogue with your reader (Justice Kagan does this all the time). Use an occasional hypothetical or “you” language to create a personal connection. Finally, use some common-sense social skills. For example, no one likes people who are overly dramatic. No one likes a tattle-tale who complains about trifling things (like the other side making some clerical mistake). No one likes a complainer who turns small problems into big ones. Just remember: if you say something in a document that would be annoying in the outside world--writing it down makes you no less annoying.
- Show off. The introduction is also your chance to show your reader that you are an elite lawyer who has the chops to help the judge write a better opinion. To create that image, your writing style must be impeccable. Typos are not an option: if your introduction’s sloppy, your reader will assume the rest of your document is too. Beyond that, this is the time to show off your writing skill. Analyze every word, every sentence, every way that you can arrange the syntax--in other words, every possible writing choice you have. Science tells us that, aside from the content, legal readers are influenced by the quality of a lawyer’s writing style.
- Tantalize. No one wants to read boring writing. Making your writing easy to read is great, making it interesting is a whole other level. Use concrete examples, a couple saucy facts, pithy phrasing, and all the wordsmithing you can muster to make your introduction fun to read. This will increase your chances of getting a reader to forge on to the body.
- Think about the stories your reader knows. We humans love stories. Everything we see, hear, or read we turn into a story. And that counts for legal writing, too. You can use this psychological insight to improve your introductions. Think about your case and the document you are writing, and imagine how it will fit in with the stories your reader is likely to know. If your motion advocates for an exception to the battery rule, incorporate the exception into an existing narrative about the battery rules your reader knows: “Battery normally requires that a defendant actually touch the plaintiff, but if the defendant causes something else to contact the victim, that counts, too, because the plaintiff suffers the same harm and the defendant is just as blameworthy.” Explain the familiar story and then explain how your part fits into the narrative.
- Emphasize what you add to the story. Keeping this narrative point in mind, don’t dwell on the mundane stories your reader already knows. Blandly reciting the basic elements of battery in your intro isn’t helpful. Emphasize what is tough or interesting about your case and the law you advocate for. In other words, focus on what you add to the story. Frankly, this goes for the body of your legal documents as well; spending a lot of time on dry, undisputable black-letter law isn’t helpful. Keep your eye trained on the prize: persuading your reader of the nuances that matter in your case.
- Embrace the bad. Embrace the bad facts and bad law and put them into context. So many advocates run from the hard parts of their case, preferring to discuss (at length) the facts and law that support them. But this is the worst possible strategy. Your judge is going to sit down and write an opinion. Either tell them how to deal with the bad stuff so that they can write an opinion with you on the winning end--or ignore it and leave them to their imagination.
- Roadmap smartly. We often hear the advice that you should roadmap your arguments. And it’s good advice. But roadmapping isn’t just about giving your reader a laundry list of every possible thing you will discuss in your document; it’s also about giving them a sense of what matters. So if there are a couple issues that are sure throw-aways, tell your reader. Then tell them about the issues that matter and how those important issues fit with eachother: “Personal jurisdiction is not meaningfully disputed here, but subject matter jurisdiction is—and there is none. But even if there is subject matter jurisdiction, the contact element of the battery claim is not adequately pleaded so the complaint must be dismissed anyway.”
- Include the entire elevator pitch. Sometimes lawyers don't include their best stuff in their introductions, preferring to hold back some for the body. Maybe they want to tease the judge with some juicy details without putting all the pieces together yet. This is a horrible strategy. Judges, like most readers these days, are busy. Let's be honest, sometimes they can't do much more than skim. If you don't make your key points in your introduction, you may never get the chance. Even if your judge makes it through the details, when they return to your brief to write their opinion or for an oral argument, it's even more likely they won't make it past the intro. So make your introduction a full elevator pitch for your document: all the key law and key facts you need to win. And if you manage to actually persuade your judge on some points at the outset, cognitive science tells us that it will be much harder for them to change their mind later when they get into the weeds.
I am delighted to be selected as a contributor for the Appellate Advocacy Blog. If you have questions or comments (or just want to chat about writing), please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit my website at www.writinglikealawyer.com
Thursday, September 28, 2017
Cartoon feminist-heroine, Kim Possible, knew that understanding the rhetorical situation was key to her work of saving the world. Likewise, it's incumbent upon appellate attorneys to contemplate the process of what it is we do as legal advocates—and why we do it. Understanding the nature of rhetorical situations involved in appellate advocacy make us better lawyers.
As a problem-solver of already existing issues, Kim Possible is channeling Lloyd Bitzer, a rhetorician who wrote a short but germinal essay, The Rhetorical Situation. In that article, Professor Bitzer defined rhetorical discourse as an attempt to problem-solve through communication that has been tailored to the specific circumstances and multiple audiences who can work towards the response. Bitzer’s idea was challenged by Professor Richard E. Vatz, in his article, The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation, with the argument that the situation can be created and defined by the communication rather than vice versa. He takes the position that the writer or speaker’s selection of facts and arguments from the panoply of available material constructs the shape of the situation as perceived by the audience. That is, the speaker/writer has some control about what is or isn’t salient to the audience.
In the world of appellate advocacy, both Bitzer’s and Vatz’s ideas ring true and both are worth considering. The circumstances that form the requirement of our legal communication do exert the type of control on the legal writer’s choices that Bitzer imagines. An appeal is an exigency, and the appellate legal writer’s messaging must take into account the needs of the audience, the constraints of the controlling law, and consideration whether it is the appropriate timing for any policy arguments (i.e. whether this is an opportune moment for that type of argument). At the same time, the decision to take a specific course in a legal matter helps create and shape what will be pertinent. There is no exigency of an appellate brief, for example, until a party files a notice of appeal outlining the issues raised.
What’s the takeaway? Both Bitzer and Vatz have something to teach appellate lawyers. The two articles are easy reads at fifteen pages and eight pages respectively. While it is important to study persuasive techniques to use in an appellate brief—techniques that appeal to the multiple audiences and that suggest a response, lawyers should also remember that the context and form of the rhetorical situation is also at least somewhat in the control of the appellate lawyers.
In the meantime, I am delighted to have been selected to join this group of bloggers. Please: call me, tweet me, if you want to reach me. -Ruth Anne Robbins
Monday, September 11, 2017
This week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This announcement caused a public outcry, as well as a response from former President Obama, whose administration had spearheaded the program.
Sessions and Obama spoke of DACA in very different terms, no doubt trying to persuade those who were still undecided, but also trying to connect with those who already agreed with them. Their two short statements illustrate core principles of legal persuasion because their words created network of favorable connections in the minds (and hearts) of their audiences.
Sessions, for example, referred to the program as “DACA”, a flat, bureaucratic acronym. Is there anything drearier than an acronym? The word “DACA” sounds like something worth getting rid of – whatever it is. Moreover, using “DACA” allowed Sessions to characterize the program as borderline illegal -- “an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws” that allowed “800,000 mostly-adult illegal aliens” to remain in the U.S. In Sessions’ statement, it is easy to dismiss the DACA participants as “other” – as people breaking the law -- not like “us.”
Contrast “DACA” with the program’s popular name, the “Dreamers.” Whereas DACA sounds emotionally flat, “Dreamers” triggers one of the most evocative and compelling cultural stories we have, the American Dream. James Truslow Adams described the American Dream in the early 1930s as the idea that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.
Imagine how dissonant Sessions’ message would have been if he’d said the “Dreamers” were “mostly-adult illegal aliens.” Such a semantic and emotional flub might have damaged Sessions’ message even with those inclined to agree with him. No American wants to connect the “American Dream” with “illegal” behavior.
By contrast, Obama’s statement took the American Dream connection and ran with it. He called the Dreamers “young people who grew up in America -- kids who study in our schools, young adults who are starting careers, patriots who pledge allegiance to our flag.” Not “other” people but “kids” “Americans” and “patriots” just like “us” (or our kids). More than that, these young “Dreamers are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.”
Like these political rhetoricians, lawyers and judges are effective in legal persuasion when they help their audiences make favorable connections. Those connections can be semantic (illegal versus patriot) or they can be emotional (we are all Dreamers). They can prime our biases (those people are illegal or my grandparents were immigrants). In the end, the way we talk about the “dreamers” provides a powerful example of persuasion -- of how to forge connections that allow us to influence others.
UNLV Law Professor Linda Berger and Temple Law Professor Kathy Stanchi are the authors of Legal Persuasion: A Rhetorical Approach to the Science (Routledge), a book that explores how legal persuasion results from making and breaking mental connections, using examples from law and politics.
Monday, July 31, 2017
I recently received a link to a Seventh Circuit in-chambers opinion that I thought was worth sharing. On July 10, Chief Judge Diane Wood issued an in-chambers opinion striking briefs in two cases. The briefs, one a respondent brief from the Attorney General and the other an appellee brief from the Air Line Pilots Association, were stricken for failing to comply with court rules. So what court rule did these parties fail to follow? Circuit Rules 3(c)(1) and 28 on jurisdictional statements.
This is surprising, as the briefs that were stricken were from an appellee and a respondent. As Chief Judge Wood explains, however, appellees and respondents have responsibilities too when it comes to the jurisdictional statement. While appellees and respondents are exempted “from filing a jurisdictional statement unless it is ‘dissatisfied’ with the appellant’s statement,” Seventh Circuit Rules “direct that ‘[t]he appellee’s brief shall state explicitly whether or not the jurisdictional summary in the appellant’s brief is complete and correct. If it is not, the appellee shall provide a complete jurisdictional summary.’”
As the Chief Judge points out, “The job of the appellee is to review the appellant’s jurisdictional statement to see if it is both complete and correct. These terms are not synonyms.” So where did the briefs of the Attorney General and the Air Line Pilots Association fall short? With respect to the Attorney General’s brief, the jurisdictional statement only said that the appellant’s statement was correct, not that it was complete. Chief Judge Wood explained, “If the Department [of Justice] concludes that Mr. Baez‐ Sanchez’s jurisdictional statement is both complete and correct, it should say so in the amended brief.” As for the Air Line Pilots Association, while their statement said that the appellant’s statement was complete, but mentioned nothing about correctness. Chief Judge Wood directed the Association to “review the appellants’ jurisdictional statement for both completeness and correctness, and if the statement is wanting on either score, . . . supply a comprehensive statement that complies with FRAP 28(a) and Circuit Rule 28(a).”
So what is the moral of this story? Follow the rules. In both cases, the jurisdictional statements would have been perfectly acceptable if they had two additional words. Now, the parties will have to incur the costs (both in time and money) of filing amended briefs.
Filing a brief that comports with the rules of the jurisdiction should not be such a difficult endeavor. As Chief Judge Wood notes in her opinion, the Seventh Circuit even provides a checklist to assist litigants follow the rules. Other legal writing books or courts provide similar lists or examples. As lawyers, we can, and should, do better.
Monday, June 26, 2017
Ravel is analytical research, a new category of intelligent tool that combines legal research and analytics. Powered by expert legal knowledge, machine learning, and comprehensive caselaw from the Harvard Law Library, Ravel is built by digital natives for 21st Century practice.
Ravel enables lawyers to find what's important, understand why it's important, and put that information to use in the most persuasive way possible. In short, we turn legal information into legal insights.
Ravel's intuitive array of data-driven tools are built from the ground up for the hardest questions, transforming how lawyers understand the law and prepare for litigation.
I first heard of Ravel a year or so ago. I was particularly impressed by their Judge Analytics. They market the product as helping you "[u]nderstand how judges think, write, and rule." I think that description is spot-on. Judge Analytics allows you to find "cases, circuits, and judges your judge finds most persuasive" and "rules and specific language your judge favors and commonly cites." For appellate advocates appearing before an unfamiliar court, this is an incredibly important research tool. It is also useful for students applying for clerk-ships. It collects all of your judge research in one place.
I don't have a lot to say about Ravel's other features. I, personally, did not find Ravel's case research to be as useful, but that might be because I did not spend enough time reviewing it. The connections and graphs were a little too much for me. I suspect, however, that millennials might really like that feature.
Unfortunately, integrating Ravel into Lexis is going to take some time. When I called Lexis Advance to ask about the time frame, I was told that the integration would be complete in the first quarter of 2018. Congratulations to Lexis and Ravel--I suspect that this will be a great deal for both organizations.