Tuesday, December 7, 2010
A recent book, The Shallows, argues that the internet is changing the way we read text online - from linear reading to a more superficial skim that causes the reader's eye to jump around the page. Now this article from the Texas Lawyer is suggesting that as more appellate clerks and judges read briefs online as the result of e-filings, lawyers may need to accommodate this "new" reading style in their written briefs.
In his book "Legal Writing for the Rewired Brain: Persuading Readers in a Paperless World," Houston appellate lawyer Robert Dubose points out that screen readers don't read linearly but rather jump around, skimming and seizing on bits of text. Eye-tracking studies show they seek content in an F-shaped pattern, looking down the left side for structural cues and then focusing on headings and first sentences of paragraphs. Heaven help the content provider with important text consigned to the bottom right of the screen.
Dubose recommends catering to screen readers by placing the most important content in headings and first sentences of paragraphs, using bullet points and lists, simplifying sentence structure, shortening paragraphs, using visual aids, avoiding synonyms, and adopting other techniques drawn from the study of making websites more user-friendly. "Legal writers must enable impatient readers to get to the point of the argument in a matter of minutes," he writes.
He's not alone. In a 2003 article in the New Mexico Law Review, University of Dayton School of Law professor Maria Crist advocated a similar "tech rhetoric" based on an "online style" of brief-writing that prizes brevity, features short paragraphs, and condenses "chunks" of information "into small manageable pieces."
The article assumes that these clerks and judges will read entire briefs online rather than printing a hardcopy as many readers still do when the material is more dense or challenging. I'm also skeptical that lawyers, and judges as readers-decision makers, will want to sacrifice thorough analysis in order to accommodate an online reading style that's associated with blogs, online newspapers and websites as compared to more intellectually demanding material. Conscientious judges must still engage deeply with their cases in order to reach a correct result and thus that's the audience attorneys need to address rather than the more casual web reader.
This is interesting stuff and you can read more about it here.
Hat tip to Law.com.