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.
Monday, June 12, 2017
Last week it seemed like the only thing on cable news was former FBI Director James Comey's testimony before Congress. While the content of Comey's written and oral testimony has received a lot of press, one surprise feature of the hearing was the praise Comey received for his writing. Here is the exchange Comey had with Senator James Risch from Idaho:
RISCH: Yesterday, I got, and everybody got, the seven pages of your direct testimony that’s now a part of the record, here. And the first — I read it, then I read it again, and all I could think was, number one, how much I hated the class of legal writing when I was in law school.
And you were the guy that probably got the A, after — after reading this. So I — I find it clear, I find it concise and, having been a prosecutor for a number of years and handling hundred — maybe thousands of cases and read police reports, investigative reports, this is as good as it gets.
And — and I really appreciate that — not only — not only the conciseness and the clearness of it, but also the fact that you have things that were written down contemporaneously when they happened, and you actually put them in quotes, so we know exactly what happened and we’re — and we’re not getting some rendition of it that — that’s in your mind. So...
COMEY: Thank you, Senator.
RISCH: ... so you’re — you’re to be complimented for that.
COMEY: I had great parents and great teachers who beat that into me.
While it is a shame that Senator Risch disliked legal writing in law school (and that he mentioned the fact at a hearing that was nationally televised), I appreciate the shout-out for the importance of clear and concise writing (and parents and teachers who encourage such writing).
Over at the Lady (Legal) Writer blog, Prof. Kirsten Davis has an excellent post on why she thinks Comey's testimony is "A" worthy. All of her comments are spot on. A few of the comments pertain directly to appellate writing, such as organizing information chronologically (almost always a great strategy in the statement of facts) and showing how his ideas connect together. She also notes the effective nature of the introductory paragraph that Comey uses and how he could have improved it. I appreciate Kirsten's insight, and I am considering using Comey's testimony in my Advanced Legal Writing course this fall when we discuss the statement of the case.
Monday, December 19, 2016
It is the "most wonderful time of year" for law professors--grading season! So, the blogging may be a little light over the next few weeks. Still, I wanted to blog on what I have been reading when I am not reading exams.
I have been on a mission to read a biography of every president. I was inspired by Stephen Floyd, an investment banker who has been reading and reviewing presidential biographies since 2012. The Washington Post also has a list of good presidential biographies. Reading presidential biographies has added a lot to my teaching, especially in constitutional law. I was thinking the other day, however, about our early president-lawyers and effective communication.
Three of our four first presidents were trained in the law--John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. These three men were gifted writers and credited with drafting (or playing a significant role in drafting) our country's most foundational documents. Jefferson (with Adams' help) drafted the Declaration of Independence, and Madison is often called the "father of the Constitution." Madison is also well-known for his writings related to Virginia politics.
Of these three men, however, only Adams was a gifted speaker. Jefferson, Madison, and Washington, were all terrible public speakers. When they delivered public addresses to Congress people often had to strain to hear them.
With the advent of radio and television, we put much greater emphasis today on our presidents being excellent public speakers. Bill Clinton--another president-lawyer--was known as the great communicator. President Obama too is effective at pubic speaking. While these men have written books as well, as have many past presidents, these books tend to be more of the autobiographical genre, rather than the political philosophy that our early president-lawyers wrote on.
In law school we focus heavily on teaching our students to be effective legal writers. Sadly, this task is getting more difficult each year. Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and the like are changing how our students think about writing and communicating. However, we must not got weary in our task. So, grade on law professors, grade on!
Friday, November 4, 2016
Here are a handful of tidbits on appellate practice from around the web this past week. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send Dan a quick email atDReal@Creighton.edu or a message on Twitter (@Daniel_L_Real).
#AppellateTwitter Threads of the Week:
BobLoeb, of Orrick's Supreme Court and Appellate Litigation practice, started a thread on Twitter this week asking for training or advice tips that were useful to appellate practitioners when they first got started. Lots of great appellate advocates weighed in with some great tips.
While the #AppellateTwitter hashtag has really started to take off, one of its contributors, UNC Law Professor Gurvich, announced plans to start a #PracticeTuesday hashtag for weekly conversations about discussions related to best practices and tips for effective appellate practice. Readers of this blog will surely want to look for that hashtag and tune in.
Just before this past week (Friday, October 28), the Supreme Court announced that it would hear a challenge to a Virginia school district's anti-transgender restroom policy. The case, Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., arises out of a school district policy mandating that students use the restroom matching their biological sex. A transgender student sued, with the support of the ACLU. The trial court ruled in favor of the school district, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the student's favor. More information available at the ACLU website and at SCOTUSBlog.
The Miami Herald reported this week on an interesting case where the United States and Venezuala are joining on the same side against a U.S. oil company. The case, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuala v. Helmerich & Payne International, was heard on Wednesday of this week. In the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit determined whether U.S. courts have jurisdiction over a lawsuit against a foreign government by looking only at whether the claim was insubstantial or frivolous. More at SCOTUSBlog.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal for Alabama death row inmate Bill Kuenzel. The case involved Kuenzel's claims that evidence was withheld by prosecutors, and gained some national attention when former Attorney General Edwin Meese weighed in and suggested that Kuenzel is "very likely actually innocent." The AP reported.
Finally, Billboard magazine reported this week that the Supreme Court has asked for the U.S. Solicitor General to provide the government's view about a nearly decade-old dispute between a mother who posted a 29-second video clip on YouTube of her toddler dancing to the Prince hit, "Let's Go Crazy." She received a takedown notice, and the mother sued and raised misrepresentation of copyright and fair use issues. Neither side was satisfied with the mixed opinion of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court has not yet granted review in the case, but the request of the Solicitor General suggests there is a possibility that such a grant could be forthcoming.
Obama's Judicial Legacy:
Law.com ran a feature this past week, including lots of graphics, analyzing how President Obama's judicial appointments have shaped the federal courts and where changes have started to be evident. Charleston Law professor Jennifer North wrote about that topic right here at the Appellate Advocacy Blog earlier this week.
Friday, September 16, 2016
This is the first edition of a new regular feature here at the Appellate Advocacy Blog: The Weekly Roundup. Each Friday, we’ll post links to some of the best appellate practice content that we’ve come across in the past week. If you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send Dan a quick email at DReal@Creighton.edu or a message on Twitter (@Daniel_L_Real).
How Not to Argue About Extrinsic Evidence
600 Camp – a blog about commercial litigation before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit – had a brief post on September 12 about the Fifth Circuit’s unpublished opinion in SmithGroup JJR, PLLC v. Forrest General Hospital. The brief opinion addressed the importance of preserving at the trial level arguments to be raised on appellate review. The particular issue at hand involved the admission and use of extrinsic evidence in the interpretation of a contract.
Blog Post: 600 Camp Blog Post
Fifth Circuit Opinion: SmithGroup v. Forrest General Hospital Opinion
Hat Tip: @David Coale
The 5 Edits I Make Most Frequently
Mark Herrmann, formerly a partner at a leading international law firm and now responsible for litigation and employment matters at a large international company, authored a post at Above the Law this week recounting common editing moves in the writing of briefs. There is a wealth of good advice there, based on real experience.
Blog Post: Above the Law Blog Post
Hat Tip: Raymond P. Ward
A Worthwhile, Four-Day Appellate CLE Is Coming to Philadelphia
Howard Bashman (featured in this week’s “Twitter Tuesday” has written a great post discussing the annual Appellate Judges Education Institute Summit, an annual four-day program hosted by the judicial division of the ABA and the Southern Methodist Dedman School of Law. In a lot of ways it is like a big CLE over several days, featuring a large group of judges and appellate practitioners. This year’s event is being held in Philadelphia in November. If it fits your schedule, it’s a highly beneficial event to attend and participate in.
Blog Post: Bashman Blog Post
Hat Tip: @howappealing
Combination of Clement/Bancroft firm with Kirkland & Ellis
A big news item this week concerns the breaking news that Paul Clement and the Bancroft firm are going to combine with Kirkland & Ellis. This news was reported and discussed in a variety of places, including an article in the National Law Journal, where another prominent SCOTUS bar practitioner was quoted as calling it “the biggest shake-up in the Supreme Court bar since [Clement] left King & Spalding in 2011.”
Article: National Law Journal Article
Hat Tip: @tessadysart
Twitter Thread About Getting Into Appellate Practice
Jason Steed, who was recently mentioned in our Twitter Tuesday feature and who is an appellate practitioner who blogs and tweets about appellate practice (especially in the 5th Circuit), started a twitter thread and discussion about getting into appellate practice that has some great discussion and thoughts. You can follow Jason’s other posts about appellate practice at @5thCircAppeals.
Friday, August 26, 2016
Should judges and lawyers quote profanity in their opinions, briefs, and oral arguments? Zoe Tillman tackled this touchy issue in a recent article on Law.com. The article, aptly entitled "In Quoting Profanity, Some Judges Give a F#%&. Others Don't," Tillman includes several quotes from federal judges on the use of profanity in judicial opinions. Well some try to avoid it at all costs, others don't mind including it, especially if it is relevant to the case.
Profanity has become increasingly prolific in court opinions. Since 2006, the word “fuck” was quoted in approximately 445 federal appeals court opinions, according to a search of court records. That’s nearly as many as the preceding four decades combined.
While judges may have the freedom to quote profanity in an opinion, what should an attorney do in writing a brief or in oral argument? With respect to oral argument, one option is to call the court in advance and notify the court that you plan on using profanity. According to First Circuit Judge Bruce Selya, who was interviewed for the article, his court always gives permission when attorneys ask.
With respect to briefs, I think that calling the court to ask how these issues have been handled in the past is always a good option. It also doesn't hurt to do your homework and know the tenure of the court that you will appear before. Finally, ask yourself if it is truly relevant to use the profanity in the brief.
In support of the latter argument [that the Patent & Trademark Office arbitrarily enforces offensive trademarks], the team provides extensive lists of wildly offensive trademarks that the PTO has issued. Certainly many of the issued trademarks mentioned in the brief are so salacious, crass, sexist and/or racist that we hesitate, on this family-friendly blog, to list them here. Indeed, this opening brief is notable in being one of the most [not inappropriately] profanity-laden court filings we have ever seen, and is worth a look for that reason alone.
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
In a recent episode of the Legal Talk Network podcast Lawyer 2 Lawyer, hosts J. Craig Williams and Bob Ambrogi interviewed Judge Alex Kozinski from the United States Court of Appeals for The Ninth Circuit and Judge Richard Kopf from the U.S. District Court, District of Nebraska, to get the judges’ thoughts on the essential elements that go into persuasive legal writing.
If you have about half an hour, you should listen to the whole interview, available HERE via Soundcloud. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole interview, or in the meantime, here are a few of the highlights:
One interesting perspective about the quality of brief-writing that the court comes from Judge Kozinski’s recognition at roughly the 6:30 mark of the interview, where he noted that the court realizes that lawyers are busy. Judge Kozinski noted that the court recognizes that staffing and economic factors certainly play a role in the quality of the briefs submitted by attorneys, and that quality is not solely a function of the lawyers’ abilities. He noted, for example, that staffing plays a role; larger firms with larger clients with larger budgets can devote more resources, including reviewers and editors, to fine tuning and polishing briefs than a solo practitioner representing an individual without deep pockets. He noted that sometimes the quality of briefs submitted to the court are not necessarily representative of failings of the individual lawyers, but are a matter of economic feasibility. Courts recognize that, and courts have their own staff to work on the case and provide additional assistance to the court in reaching the correct result.
At roughly 5:30 into the interview, Judge Kopf advises that attorneys writing briefs try to emulate what one might read in a “really well-written newspaper.” He identifies the three key attributes of effective brief-writing as that it be simple, precise, and readable.
Simplicity is really important to Judge Kopf and, in my experience, most judges. They are busy and are always trying to focus in on the essential aspects of the case to reach a timely and accurate resolution, usually in the most direct way possible. Judge Kopf explains starting at roughly the 11:00 mark of the interview that a litigant who spends a little time narrowing in and simplifying the issue right at the outset of a brief does the court a significant favor. He compares an example wherein a litigant starts a brief by noting that it is in support of “a motion for summary judgment” with one noting that it is in support of “a motion for summary judgment, limited to the issue of qualified immunity.” Simplifying and narrowing the focus at the outset helps the court to understand immediately where the rest of the discussion is going to go.
In cases involving complex technical issues or areas of the law, simplicity obviously becomes all the more important. In class, I always stress to my students the importance of explaining the issues, the law, and the facts in the simplest and most straightforward way possible. I always tell my students that there is little risk of offending any judge by making something seem “too simple,” but there is great risk of a judge not fully understanding technical issues that are not simplified and explained. Judge Kopf echoes this thought at roughly the 30:15 mark of the interview by noting that a litigant writing a brief should “not assume [the judge is] smart.” Judge Kopf advises at roughly the 29:25 mark of the interview that a litigant writing a brief addressing a technical issue have “a real human being” read the brief before it is submitted – someone with no background in that technical area. If that person cannot understand it, the writer needs to reevaluate.
The advice of seeking review by a reader who is not technically trained in the particular subject matter of the brief was also echoed by Judge Kozinski in his final thoughts, at roughly the 31:20 mark of the interview. Judge Kozinski urged writers to ask themselves if they could explain the arguments presented in their briefs to an educated, smart person who is not an expert, in plain language. If not, the writer needs to go back and rethink the argument and rethink how to present it. As Judge Kozinski put it, “writing is thinking.”
Saturday, October 31, 2015
I am constantly stressing to my appellate advocacy students the importance of not just excellent substance in their briefs, but also the importance of complying with the court’s technical rules. There is nothing more frustrating as a legal writing professor than reading a brief that makes great legal arguments, but is so poorly formatted that the substance is lost in the technical errors.
A few days ago one of my students sent me a post by Casey C. Sullivan on FindLaw’s Strategist Blog about an attorney in Indiana who requested permission to file a corrected Table of Contents and Table of Authorities in a case before the Court of Appeals of Indiana. The court granted the request, but directed that “[n]o substantive changes . . . be made to the Amended Appellant’s Brief.”
According to the court’s opinion the new Table of Contents represented “at best, an abject failure to understand the most basic requirements of appellate briefing.” The attorney expanded the one-page Table of Contents in her first brief to a whopping thirty-seven pages in the amended brief. The Table of Authorities was expanded from four to eleven pages. The court’s opinion contains a few snippets from both tables including this gem from the Table of Authorities:
Hirsch v. Merchants Nat’l Bank & Trust Co. of Indiana, 336 N.E.2d 833 (Ind. Ct. App. 1975) (providing eight percent interest in action for breach of lease). When the parties’ contract does not provide an interest rate; therefore, the statutory interest rate of eight percent is applicable. (cited in App. 75-76) [appearing on page] 12
Unfortunately for the attorney, not even the page number in this entry was correct, as page 12 of the brief contained no case citations at all and was actually part of the Statement of Facts. According to the court, “the Table of Authorities fail[ed] at its basic and only purpose of informing us of the cases cited in the brief and directing us to where in the brief a particular case is discussed.”
The attorney’s failure to follow the rules came at a steep price—the court disregarded the entirety of both Tables—proving once again that formatting matters!
Thursday, October 15, 2015
With the Supreme Court’s new term now underway, there is likely to soon be much to discuss in the world of appellate advocacy and developments from cases heard by the Court. In the interim, I thought I’d share a handful of links for those who are in practice or in law school settings, working on drafting an appellate brief, and looking for some little tidbits concerning ways to maximize effectiveness. The following links cover a wide range of brief-writing topics and perusing them might offer some new thoughts or perspectives to increase your overall impact.
Overview of Each Section:
The Duke Law School has a helpful guide to appellate advocacy on its website that includes a table of contents and then individual sections addressing various parts of an appellate brief, including the Question Presented, the Tables, the Statement of the Case, the Argument, and the Conclusion:
Finding Your Appellate Voice:
Some Tips Regarding Your Statement of the Case / Fact Section:
Stephen V. Armstrong (Director of career Development at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, an international firm based in Washington, D.C. and former Director of Professional Development and Training at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a law firm based in New York City) and Timothy P. Terrell (Professor of Law at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and former Director of Professional Development a the law firm of King & Spaulding in Atlanta) present tips on “Organizing Facts to Tell Stories” in the Winter 2001 edition of Perspectives:
Palmer Gene Vance II and Madonna E. Schueler (both of the firm of Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLC in Lexington, Kentucky) present “Ten Tips for Developing Your Case Theme” in the September/October edition of GPSolo, a publication of the American Bar Association:
Standard of Review:
Mike Skotnicki, an appellate attorney in Alabama, presented “The Standard of Review is the Lens Through Which You View Your Facts and Issues” on his appellate practice blog, Briefly Writing, back in January 2012:
Paragraph and Sentence Structure:
Mike Skotnicki presented “Borrowing a Fiction Writing Technique: Using Pacing by Paragraph and Sentence Length to Build to a Conclusion” on his appellate practice blog, Briefly Writing, back in March 2012:
Raymond Ward, an appellate lawyer in New Orleans, linked to articles by Stephen V. Armstrong and Timothy P. Terrell from recent issues of Perspectives, concerning “Lessons in Paragraph Building” on his blog, the (new) legal writer:
Editing to Meet Page Limits:
Lady (Legal) Writer presented a blog entry in September about “Editing to Meet Page Limits”:
If you have links to articles, blog posts, or other resources that you’ve found to be useful with tips and thoughts on ways to improve appellate brief writing, share them in the comments!
Thursday, May 7, 2015
Of interest on the topic of writing...
First, Bryan Garner has a column on the ABA Online, "First impressions endure, even in brief writing." In it, Garner makes use of social science research and the work of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman to support three basic principles regarding good (legal) writing: "(1) little errors in a brief betoken bigger mistakes, (2) less is more, and (3) good briefs demand little physical or mental effort from the reader." While the advice isn't novel, the use of psychology and economic principles to support these ideas may be compelling to some readers.
Second, in a similar vein, "10 top writing tips and the psychology behind them," offers ten discrete pieces of writing advice and discusses why it matters, why we often fail to heed the advice, and how to fix our processes to follow that advice more consistency. The advice is mostly applicable to legal writing and the format, which tries to pull back the curtain on why we make the errors we do, is especially helpful.
Third, some amazing filings: dismissal of a complaint filed in D. Nebraska against "Homosexuals" and a filed in N.D. Georgia, a "Notice to F*ck this Court and Everything It Stands For."
Thursday, March 19, 2015
The federal appellate courts are currently considering a change to Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32(a)(7)(B) that would reduce the word-limit of principal appellate briefs from 14,000 to 12,500. Law blogs, especially those of an appellate bent, have reported on this as comments rolled in over the last several weeks. This blog is far behind on mentioning it, and even now, I don't have a strong opinion on the proposal. But it seemed worth mentioning that the issue has reached the general public in the form of a Wall Street Journal article.
Oddly, what stood out to me in this article was this bit:
Michael Gans, clerk of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, who oversaw the word-count study, says the process couldn’t have been more painstaking. It was carried out by a high-school graduate who interned at his office and spent a recent summer in a cubicle counting every single word of 200 printed-out briefs that served as the sample. “I felt sorry for her, but that’s what she did all summer,” Mr. Gans said. “She still wants to go to law school.”
Perhaps optical character recognition software could have been used?
hat tip to reader: Professor Jennifer Romig
Monday, October 20, 2014
For those of you working on developing an appellate brief problem for this academic year, take a look at City of Los Angeles v. Patel. The U.S. Supreme Court just granted the petition for writ of certiorari today, and it has the trappings of a good problem for two reasons. First, the two issues, one jurisdictional and the other substantive, are well-separated. Second, it involves an intriguing question about Fourth Amendment protection of hotel guest registries. I could see a fun and interesting pop-culture problem developing out of these issues.
When creating good appellate brief problems, it can sometimes be difficult to manage the ripeness factor. You want to choose a current issue, but not one that will necessarily be resolved before your students complete the assignment. You also want to be careful about creating a problem where your students will have easy access to professionally-written briefs. These potential pitfalls can easily be avoided, though, by creative fact development.
When creating a problem from a recent cert. grant, the first step is to outline the issue(s) you want to use. Next, you should identify how the split(s) have come down. Once you have broken apart the pending case, you have a good framework for rebuilding a problem that has sufficient legal similarities without too much factual similarity. The students can then find many relevant legal sources for solving the problem, but they won't be able to just pull legal arguments out of professionally-written briefs because the facts will be too nuanced for the legal analysis to hold up verbatim in the simulated setting. Additionally, when the facts are sufficiently distinct from the original problem, the issue you have created may still be ripe or resolvable even if the Supreme Court rules on the actual case before the end of the semester.
Though problem-creation can seem like an intimidating challenge, it is a highly rewarding aspect of our work as law professors. Have fun as you create a packet that will be enjoyable and interesting for both you and the students. Be inspired.
Friday, September 19, 2014
This week my first year students are learning the basics of legal research, and I asked our librarians to present a session on free/economical electronic legal research tools as part of the training. I always love hearing from the librarians because they are familiar with the latest and greatest, and I always learn something new. This year was no different, I am happy to report. The librarians introduced us to Ravel, an online search engine that provides graphical histories of cases.
For appellate attorneys, this resource is particularly helpful in quickly identifying the key cases related to a given legal question. The graphical interface is much more user-friendly as compared to the linear lists provided through most other commercial database providers. Ravel also includes at least four filters so that practitioners can sort information in a way that is most pertinent and useful to a particular project.
Here are some of the pros:
- Demonstrates a case’s historical relevance at a glance
- Free for all federal cases
- User-friendly interface
- Hyperlinks to full-text of cases
- Places footnotes beside the relevant text for easy on-screen reference
This database is a good supplement to other research engines because it saves an attorney significant time when wading through precedent and subsequent history to find the most important cases. There are other packages of state case materials available for a subscription fee. As of now, Ravel does not include citators or statutory or secondary sources, so it is not currently comprehensive enough to replace other commercial databases. They are constantly adding new materials and indexing systems, though, so it is definitely a resource to keep your eye on.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
This is the kind of basic advocacy blunder that is hard to believe, but it's being reported that BP's counsel fiddled with the formatting to file an over-length brief without permission.While this happened in federal district court, it's a fundamental advocacy issue worth reporting here. In a filing related to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill in 2010, BP's counsel tried to slip one past Eastern District of Louisiana Judge Carl Barbier. He was not fooled or amused.
After noting that it had already allowed BP to file a brief ten pages longer than the usual twenty-five-page limit, the Court explained:
"BP’s counsel filed a brief that, at first blush, appeared just within the 35-page limit. A closer study reveals that BP’s counsel abused the page limit by reducing the line spacing to slightly less than double-spaced. As a result, BP exceeded the (already enlarged) page limit by roughly 6 pages. The Court should not have to waste its time policing such simple rules—particularly in a case as massive and complex as this. Counsel are expected to follow the Court’s orders both in letter and in spirit. The Court should not have to resort to imposing character limits, etc., to ensure compliance. Counsel’s tactic would not be appropriate for a college term paper. It certainly is not appropriate here. Any future briefs using similar tactics will be struck."
Judge Barbier was far more generous than I would have been. Still, even without a harsh penalty, this will make good material for my appellate advcocacy class lesson on ethos in a few weeks. For a company that wants to be viewed as one that follows the rules and cares about details, this kind of angle-shooting by its counsel seems counter-productive.
A former clerk for Judge Barbier, Alabama Law Professor Montré Carodine, reads between the lines to suggest: "The subtext seems to be Judge Barbier saying, 'Look, every time I give you an inch you take a mile, and I'm tired of it,'" (as quoted in the NPR piece on the matter). I'm not sure what evidence exists to show repeated offenses, but fiddling with the formatting after being allowed to increase your brief by 40% does seem to be the kind of presumptious greed Carodine's idiom suggests.
I wonder how often this occurs. Does it slip past judges with any frequency? Is there any creditable explanation for changing the formating? Any one want to defend the practice?
Hat tip to reader Maryanne Heidemann