Thursday, July 5, 2018
Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor, Rutgers Law School
Professor Andrew Carter has used a juggling metaphor to caution his students about exceeding a reader’s working-memory limitations. A sentence and paragraph need to stay within the boundaries of what a reader can competently hold in her working memory if the writer wants that reader to thoroughly comprehend and maintain the writer’s ideas. His article on the topic provides lawyers with useful information why our writing needs revisions for clarity and, yes, brevity.
Working memory is more than pass-through storage for new information. It is also where we interpret that information and use it to complete tasks. A simple arithmetic problem can be solved in our heads thanks to working memory, because it is there that we are both storing information (the numbers) and processing that information (performing the arithmetic function). At some point, Professor Carter points out, arithmetic becomes too difficult if there are too many numbers to store and manipulate. While we might be able to add numbers in the 100’s, we may need to turn to writing instruments to solve addition or subtraction problems that involve numbers in the thousands or ten-thousands.
Working memory has three different components to it: the first part stores the new information and the second part rehearses it on a loop to avoid forgetting. Third, the central executive component coordinates the information and controls the processing.
Written text likewise engages working memory. But, a reader can process only a limited number of concepts in a single sentence or paragraph before overwhelming the limited capacity of working memory’s ability to store, rehearse, and process information. In the central executive aspect, the reader completes two tasks: discerning the text’s meaning and putting the text into context by mediating interactions with information housed in long-term memory. Thus, says Professor Carter, legal writers need to be cautious about how much information they ask the reader to juggle.
Professor Carter thus offers two sage pieces of advice. First, promote automatic processing. That means keeping the information simplified and free from disruptions. Long sentences with extraneous information, ornate syntax or obscure phrases all inhibit the automatic processing of information. So too will stumbling blocks in the way of grammatical, word-choice, or punctuation errors. Second, manage the cognitive load visually by chunking sentences and paragraphs so the interactivity of ideas is obvious rather than difficult to sus out. Causal ideas (if/then) in sentences and paragraphs should be clear to the reader via small-group chunks that are more automatically processed because they contain recognizable flow.
Naturally, legal readers carry a duty to read and digest the legal writing of an attorney. But, it bears repeating that a piece of writing’s efficacy will turn in part on its readability. Sometimes, keeping it simple is the strategic choice.
Thursday, June 14, 2018
A Chicago attorney may be in trouble for plagiarism. The abrupt writing style change in the middle of his brief was easily Googled and more than 1,000 words were discovered to be lifted from two separate sources - a law bulletin and a primer series.
Plagiarism of this sort is not hard for the reader to detect. For law students, it means an honor code violation, and for licensed attorneys it means possible ethical violations. There is little room to argue that it was done unknowingly, and at the least, this type of behavior is negligent. Using over 1,000 words though, it is a stretch to believe that laziness and arrogance weren't also involved.
Most people first encounter the concept of plagiarism in an academic setting, where they are taught that plagiarism consists of using the words or ideas of another without attribution. For example, the Modern Language Association defines plagiarism thus:
“Using another person’s ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source constitutes plagiarism.... [T]o plagiarize is to give the impression that you wrote or thought something that you in fact borrowed from someone, and to do so is a violation of professional ethics.
“Forms of plagiarism include the failure to give appropriate acknowledgment when repeating another’s wording or particularly apt phrase, paraphrasing another’s argument, and presenting another’s line of thinking."
In academic writing, a premium is put on finding and communicating ideas that have not been discovered before. Law students must write their law review articles on a subject not yet preempted by another author. They must find something unique to say about a topic. Practicing attorneys, on the other hand, have a different focus. Most often they need to use another's words in order to support their own argument. It is the existence of another's idea that makes their case stronger. So it remains baffling why a practicing attorney would not give attribution to his source. (Frequently, it appears as if attribution is given because citations are copied and paste along with the text - but another has arranged these words in a particular, unique way, and that must be credited).
This behavior is further puzzling when it is done without much effort to to hide the offense. Some work went into finding the excerpt, and shoving it into the right spot in the document, so why not revise the words and the style to match the rest? Does this plagiarizer think he can so blatantly submit a patchwork document and it not be noticed? Not likely, and not ethical or professional.
In the case of the Chicago attorney referenced here, he charges $400.00 per hour. Apparently, copy and paste is the best his client can expect for that pittance of a fee.
Monday, June 11, 2018
Earlier this year I blogged about students (and a well-known national gym franchise) spelling the word judgment with the letter "e" appearing twice--in "judge" and in "ment." In my initial post, I took a cursory look at how the U.S. Supreme Court spells the word, finding that it overwhelmingly prefersthe single "e" version of the word.
The topic intrigued me so much, I decided to dig a little deeper and write a short article on it. I am pleased to announce that the article will be published in the Spring 2018 edition of The Green Bag. You can preview the article here.
The article starts with an Originalist inquiry into the spelling of judgment--looking at how the word was spelled in state constitutions and other important founding documents. I then explore English language and legal dictionaries to see how those sources spelled the word. I end with a much more detailed look at the Supreme Court's treatment of the word, using various legal research databases to identify every instance of "judgement" appearing in the U.S. Reports.
Although I do encourage you to read the article (it is quite short), I am happy to share my conclusion in this post. In legal writing, judgment should be spelled with only one "e." That is the preferred spelling of the early sources, the dictionaries, and the U.S. Supreme Court. For those who want to cling to the double "e" version of the word, I implore you to be consistent in your writing. While seeing judgement in a brief does cause me to cringe, I cringe even more when I see the word spelled two different ways, sometimes in the same paragraph or sentence.
Thursday, May 24, 2018
Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
Parentheticals. We love them, but we don’t always understand how to use them. An empirical study and article by Professor Michael Murray compiling the most-often use of these legal-writing creatures, demonstrates that most of the time they are used either incorrectly or inefficiently. Parentheticals are best employed to illustrate the governing rule of law by pointing to key facts from precedential narratives. Or, to embed a pithy quote that likewise illustrates a point.
Parentheticals are typically used when an illustration can be easily reduced to a comprehensible present-participle phrase. Experts also consider relevance in the equation. Sometimes the efficiencies suggest the use of a parenthetical to save space, i.e. when the precedential case isn’t important enough to elevate to an in-text explanation. A parenthetical can also be used to make a point about a rule being used in a series of precedential cases. That is, the parentheticals can then form visual support for synthesis such as, “the five cases that analyzed this point all interpreted the term broadly.” Five cites with parentheticals would then follow.
However, the substance inside parentheticals are sometimes visually difficult to locate, coming at the end of a citation sentence. If a case is more relevant to the client’s outcome, a better choice may be using one or two sentences of in-text explanation in lieu of the parenthetical.
Michael Smith, at Wyoming College of Law is *the* expert on this topic, and his Advanced Legal Writing textbook’s Chapter 3 has been termed by 15 years of upper-division law students as “mandatory reading for any to-be lawyer or lawyer.” In the chapter he categorizes types of narration one might do in a parenthetical:
- Illustrate for elucidation (using a parenthetical to illustrate how a rule operated in a precedential case).
- Illustrate for elimination (using a parenthetical to eliminate possible misinterpretations of general rules).
- Illustrate for affiliation (using a parenthetical to tie a rule to something in the everyday knowledge of the reader—a reference to a cultural icon, publication, or phenomenon).
- Illustrate for accentuation (using a parenthetical to demonstrate how one word in the rule that might otherwise be overlooked is actually the key to solving ambiguities).
In my own textbook, written with Steve Johansen and with Professor Smith’s colleague Ken Chestek, we expand slightly on Professor Smith’s categories, by talking about one-word or one-phrase uses of parentheticals. That is used in situations where a single word or phrase can conjure a story-scene for the reader and make the elucidation point. By way of quick example, “New Jersey considers the smallest of offensive touches ‘bodily injury’ in its criminal caselaw. [case cite] (slap); [case cite] (shove); [case cite] (kick); [case cite] (pinch).” We also talk about times when you can use quotations effectively in parentheticals: when it’s unique language that succinctly illustrates the rule. “wall of separation” is a good example of this.
Professor Smith also includes cautions for the use of parentheticals, and it is here that the numbers crunched by Professor Murray in his article make clear what is going wrong in the majority of appellate briefs. The number one and number two issues that Professor Smith sees in the drafting of parenthetical substance? Exactly what Professor Murray sees the most in his data. The error of placing the rule in the parenthetical. Or, the error of restating the rule in the parenthetical. That is, quoting the rule the attorney just synthesized into a client-oriented rule statement—or should have just synthesized that way. Restating the rule is simply a crutch for the writer—as if to say, “I really did read the case!” Restating the rule also ruins the cause-to-effect narrative flow of the rule illustration/rule explanation part of legal analysis.
Other common errors include being too overbroad in the factual illustration or being too specific. The right height to look down on the case and describe facts for parenthetical purposes is something like 30 feet from the ground. What can you see of a precedent’s story from that height? Not every blade of grass, but maybe a person’s front yard.
What is the takeaway? Parentheticals are an important tool in the lawyer’s kit, when used to promote persuasion and efficiency. They can, however, be cluttering and in some cases can add bulk if they are merely repetitive. Use them well—and use them wisely.
 You can preview part of Professor Smith’s Chapter 3 via Google Books. Search string: “Michael R. Smith” & parentheticals
 Do not pay the list price for a new book. The second edition is coming out this fall and will make this first edition a heck of a lot cheaper.
Thursday, May 10, 2018
Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
The big news this week in field of law and typography was a Washington Post story about a study that purports to settle the one versus two-space controversy that rages on appellate-minded websites, listservs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. Even on this Appellate Advocacy Blog, editor Tessa Dysart chimed in earlier this week. For those of you who are two-space fanatics, I am going to do more than repeat what you may have already heard, i.e. that the study is deeply flawed (although I will quickly review it). Mostly, I am going to suggest that you reflect on your dry, compassionate-less soul and then put down your personal preferences to instead be a citizen of the world.
But before I continue along these lines, I want to reiterate the scientific flaws in the study that have been ably and articulately pointed out by the best typographer and design expert in law—Matthew Butterick. I have had the pleasure of presenting with LWI Golden Pen recipient Matthew Butterick, and I know that when he writes something, he’s carefully researched and analyzed it first. Right away, Butterick calls attention to the central flaw of the study. It was done using the monospaced (typewriter-like) typeface of Courier, which is still required by the upper courts of New Jersey. To try and shake loose the New Jersey committee overseeing court rule changes, I researched the educational and cognitive science of readability and in 2004 published Painting with Print: Incorporating Concepts and Layout Design into the Text of Legal Writing Documents. The New Jersey officials were not persuaded but other courts were, and the article appeared by invitation on the 7th Circuit’s website for twelve years.
Because it is a monospaced typeface, two spaces must appear at the end of each sentence. Otherwise it is too difficult to determine whether there has actually been a break in the prose. But people don’t use typewriter fonts when they have the choice to use a proportionally spaced one such as the one you are reading right now. And there’s a reason for that. Courier, and typefaces like it, are 4.7% more difficult to read than proportionally spaced type. That equals a slowdown of fifteen words per minute, which Dr. Miles Tinker, the lead psychologist who studied the issue deemed “significant.” In his studies, readers consistently ranked proportionally spaced typefaces ahead of monospaced ones. In other words, the new study is flawed both in using a typeface that people don’t normally choose, and in using a typeface that essentially requires two spaces to be able to discern the difference between the end of a sentence or not. The people conducting the study put the cart before the horse. That’s just poor science.
Now, I promised you a lambasting, and here it is. Two spaces after periods take up more space and for lawyers who find themselves up against a page limit, or who wonder why paper is so expensive, think about whether you can save yourself some space and money by switching over to one space instead. You can also cut down on use of one of the most noxious and wasteful products we use: paper. In this country, paper is the largest source of municipal waste, and paper creation is the fourth worst industry for the environment. I wrote about this too, in a follow-up article, Conserving the Canvas: Reducing the Environmental Footprint of Legal Briefs by Re-imagining Court Rules and Document Design Strategies. Two spaces after periods actually contribute to the polluting of the environment. Yes, that extra space really does cost something to use.
And, if you are in the Seventh Circuit, you don’t even have a choice. The judges care a great deal about typography and instruct lawyers to use only one space after periods.
So, there you have it, two-spacers. An inconvenient truth. There’s logos, pathos, and ethos to using only one space. Your preference harms the Earth, eats into your page limits, and costs you and your clients more money to use. The so-called study is junk science. Are there really any justifiable reasons left to continue your inconsiderate punctuation practices?
 Miles A. Tinker, Legibility of Print 47–48 (Iowa State U. Press 1964) (synthesizing several decades of psychological research on typeface and readability).
 There are also other ways to save yourself some money and ecological ruin. When rules don’t require double-spacing: don’t. It’s harder to read anyway. And when courts allow you to use double-sided printing, do so.
May 10, 2018 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, April 18, 2018
Often, I find myself in a conversation about the validity of Moot Court programs in law school. This discussion is perpetual. Indeed, while I was in law school, a pair of articles were published discussing this issue. One clearly opposed, and in support, of the moot court experience. See Alex Kozinski, In Praise of Moot Court--Not! , 97 Colum. L. Rev. 178 (1997); Michael V. Hernandez, In Defense of Moot Court: A Response to "In Praise of Moot Court--Not!", 17 Rev. Litig. 69 (1998). Those that know me, understand that I am a big fan of moot court, even if you have no intention to enter appellate practice. Over the next few weeks, I will address my views on the moot court experience.
In this post, I address how the moot court experience enhances a student's writing skills.
During the first year of a student's law school experience, we take mostly good, or even excellent writers, and change how they perceive the writing process. In some instances, we find students who need real work on basic writing skills, but for most, it is just a matter of getting them to buy into a new approach. No longer are students using filler to reach some magical minimum word count, no longer are we rewarding free-flowing prose. Students must constrain their writing to maximum word counts, and to seemingly arbitrary formulas. My students complain about CREAC, CRAC, IRAC, or CRuPAC, or whatever the acronym of the day is, at least until they have embraced it. I liken good legal writing to an instruction manual that must be written in a manner that frees the reader to focus on the analysis. Certainly, by the end of the first-year students are capable of writing good briefs. They reach legal conclusions that are sound and built upon a strong, rule-based foundations. Such writing is good, and if a student were to enter the legal community immediately after their first year, their writing would be sufficient.
But, sufficiency is not enough. As a practicing attorney, I never had the better part of a semester to write a brief. I've written multiple briefs and pleadings in a single week. If my writing was only sufficient, I would have struggled to put together coherent briefs and pleadings at that pace. So I push my students to excellence, and they way to do that is through practice. The more one writes, the easier it is.
Many law schools with strong moot court programs have a class dedicated to appellate advocacy or brief writing. These classes take the skills a student learns in their first year and builds on those skills. Students learn when and how to step away from the basic CREAC formula. They learn how to write many different types of arguments. They gain extra practice.
Once a student is in competition, the student develops skills that can only come from practicing their skills with no input. Students gain confidence when they realize that they can write a brief, with difficult legal or factual issues, without getting constant reassurance or guidance from their professors. Students learn the importance of crafting an error free document, and from taking the time to review and edit the document. When they begin preparing for oral argument they will learn the value of listening to the inner voice that tells you an issue either is or isn't worth mentioning in the brief. When they compete a second or third time, that skill will be utilized to create an even better written product.
In short, moot court gives students multiple opportunities to develop and perfect the practice-ready writing skills a student gains in their first year, and which every practice attorney needs.
Monday, April 9, 2018
After a two week travel hiatus, I am back to posting!
Last weekend I traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas to speak at the First Annual Justice Donald L. Corbin Appellate Symposium. The Symposium was organized by the Pulaski County Bar Foundation and the Corbin family. I had a marvelous time! Not only were the speakers warmly welcomed and well-cared for, I was astounded by the quality of speakers that the Foundation secured.
Although my travel schedule prevented me from attending most of the symposium, I enjoyed Prof. Steven A. Drizin's presentation on false confessions by juveniles. Prof. Drizin is part of Brendan Dassey's appellate legal team. Attendees also heard presentations by Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Judge Beverly Martin, Judge Mary Murguia, and Judge Bernice Donald. And they heard a presentation from me.
My presentation was entitled "Top 10 Tips from Appellate Judges." As I noted at the start of the presentation, the irony of the topic was not lost on me. Here I was, a law professor, giving tips from judges to a group of people who had heard from several distinguished appellate judges. But, as I explained, my tips represented the views of the collective judiciary, culled from my work on the third edition of Winning on Appeal. For the next several weeks, I am going to share a few of the tips from my presentation.
I started the presentation with the most important, most common, complaint about briefs that we received from judges--that they are just too long. As one judge put it, "They're called briefs, not longs."
Why are overlong briefs so bad? First, judges have a lot to read. The average federal appellate judge decides about 550 cases a year. That means reading at least 100o briefs a year. If each brief is 50 pages long, that means that judges read at least 50,000 pages of briefs each year. Second, long briefs are hard to read in one sitting, which makes it hard for judges to compare arguments between briefs. Third, judges have finite attention spans. It is hard to remain excited about reading a long, unfocused brief.
So, how do you cut down your brief? The judges who responded to our survey for Winning on Appeal had some great tips, two of which I will share here:
- "Think first, and edit ruthlessly." Think about what you need to prove to win, and orient your entire brief around that point (or points). What is the "flashpoint of controversy" in the case. If it is just about applying the law to the facts, don't spend pages in your brief justifying the legal rule. Just apply the established rule to your facts.
- Avoid needless repetition or extraneous facts. Again, keep your brief focused on the dispute. Only include materially important facts when describing extraneous cases, and in your statement of facts, don't go overboard on persuasive and background facts.
Writing a detailed outline before you start typing the argument is one way to keep your argument on track.
Next week I will discuss a second tip, which also helps keep your brief concise--selecting issues.
Thursday, March 29, 2018
In my last Thinking Thursday, I discussed some common logical fallacies that lawyers may fall prey to. Specifically, I focused on non-sequitur fallacies and insufficient evidence fallacies. Based on responses to my previous blog entry, I am going to review one category in this piece, and one more in the next entry.
Today I am focusing on shallow thinking fallacies. 
By way of quick review, logical fallacies happen when something goes wrong with the legal syllogism. Here is a proper albeit simplistic legal syllogism:
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 shallow thinking fallacies, the advocate begins with a faulty major premise. The claimed “rule” is not a rule at all or is poorly articulated. Below are four shallow thinking fallacies.
1. You can spot a false dichotomy fallacy when you are presented only two choices to a complex issue that in fact offer multiple choices. For example, “If you don’t like chocolate, you must like vanilla.” Or, “you are either a Star Trek or a Star Wars person.”
Here’s how the syllogism goes wrong:
The False Dichotomy
People can either like Star Wars or Star Trek, but cannot like both
You like Star Trek
You do not like Star Wars
Logical but incorrect
Some legal maxims are actually examples of this fallacy, including one of the trial lawyer’s favorites: falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (if a witness lies about one thing, he is lying about everything).
2.Next is the bandwagon fallacy, or what I like to call “teenager logic,” It goes like this, “everybody agrees with this premise.” The obvious implication—so if everyone agrees, it must be correct. The internet is full of the faceless, nameless, “everyone says so” comments, sometimes supposedly supported by unscientific or undocumented polls. Lawyers might see this argument appear in the guise of an uncited “weight of authority” type of argument: “Most other jurisdictions do it this way!” Or, “This is a well-settled rule of law, dating back to antiquity.” [no or very few citations]. This one is a fallacy mostly because the major premise (“everybody agrees”) is not supported by sufficient authority. The premise might be true, but the skeptical reader will likely see this sort of argument as a cover-up for a weak or non-existent rule. A string citation can help overcome a bandwagon fallacy—one of the few times a string citation is actually useful: To show the weight of authority.
3.The third shallow thinking fallacy, the middle ground fallacy, is also known as the King Solomon Solution. This fallacy assumes that when two parties begin from distant or opposite positions, the position squarely in the middle of those two positions is the optimal solution. This kind of fallacy relies on the predilection of humans to rely on opening anchors for negotiation points--if the opening anchor is unrealistic, the rest of the negotiation can become fallacious. You can read more about this on the website of the Harvard Program on Negotiations.
Once again, this major premise contains fundamental flaws—in this case, the flaw in thinking that both positions are equally valid. They might not be. The problem, of course, is that the solution disregards the possibility that one position is objectively reasonable (or legally sound) and the other is grossly unreasonable (or legally unsound). While our legal system encourages and values compromise, when faced with this particular fallacy compromise leads to unreasonable or legally unsound results.
The Middle Ground Fallacy
The best resolution of any valuation issue is the average of the two expert opinions
Plaintiff’s expert values the property at $500,000, but Defendant’s expert values it at $150,000
The property is worth $325,000
Logical but unsupported
4. Related to this, the fallacy of false balances also starts with a fundamental flaw in the major premise. Not all sides of an issue deserve equal weight in every situation. Sometimes one side of a debate has little or no weight at all, and therefore deserves little or no role in the debate. Journalists are often accused of allowing air time to fallacious debates even though one side is without merit.
In practice, this fallacy commonly appears in debates that involve proven science. The scientific method involves repeat experiments by different groups of scientists to verify stated conclusions. Once that has happened and conclusions have been accepted by a majority of scientists in the field, it is a logical fallacy to say that a dissenting view is equally balanced to the proved science. Allowing a debate about whether the moon revolves around the earth or vice versa would fall into this category of fallacies. As with the Fallacy of False Equivalency, lawyers can fall prey to this type of fallacy because we are taught to problem-solve through negotiation and compromise.
The False Balance Fallacy
The Earth might be flat or round
I believe the Earth is flat
The Earth is flat
True (he “believes”)
Logical but False
Keep an eye out in your writing and in your colleagues’ to help correct any of these you spot in their analysis.
Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School
 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 29, 2018 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Arbitration, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)
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 (1)
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.