Sunday, March 11, 2012
As mentioned in Professor Fischer’s earlier post, Georgetown Law School hosted the Second Annual Capital Area Legal Writing Conference this weekend. I completely agree with her – the conference was a great success. I just stepped off the plane (D.C. to Lubbock via Southwest isn’t pretty, but I made it) and wanted to share my thoughts on the keynote address. Patricia Millett, co-head of Akin Gump's appellate practice group, gave the keynote. Ms. Millett, formerly of the Solicitor General's office, has briefed and argued thirty cases before the United States Supreme Court. She provided the practitioner's perspective on young legal writers.
She argued that the most important thing that legal writing teachers can do is to teach students to care about quality writing. If we inculcate a desire to write well and to appreciate quality writing, students will continue to improve even after they are no longer in our classrooms. Moreover, Ms. Millett suggested that we teach our students to care, really care, about clients. This involves understanding clients, and other lawyers' clients, as more than just a bland description from a case book. She described her own experience with a client in a Supreme Court case who had sued his former torturer in federal court. After leaving oral argument, Ms. Millett walked with the client, her mind running through questions that the justices asked and those that they did not ask. Asked about his reaction to the oral argument, the client simply said, "I'm glad we had our day in court." A man who had been denied all due process of law was content to trust the justice system to provide a resolution through court proceedings.
Ms. Millett also implored us to teach our students to care about the legal writing audience, most notably courts. She accurately described judges as overworked and tired of reading. If legal writers do not take the time to make briefs concise and readable, judges will simply tune out potentially winning arguments. She made a fascinating point about briefs really being "pre-opinions." The ultimate compliment a judge can pay a brief is structuring an opinion after it. If the judge adopts your brief as the actual opinion, you win. So brief writers should focus on doing things in briefs that would work in opinions. Likewise, writers should avoid doing things in briefs that would not work in an opinion. Ms. Millett gave the audience several good examples, noting that you do not see many opinions with name-calling and statements like "the law is clearly," so writers should avoid including name-calling or "clearly" in a brief.
The keynote included many other great points, so many in fact that I don't have room to recount them all here. The input from such a sage appellate writer was especially timely because many of us teach appellate brief writing in the coming weeks. I'm better prepared to do so having heard Ms. Millett's presentation.
Beyond the keynote, Georgetown put on a great conference. Lots of talented presenters shared recent teaching developments and new ideas. The conference was well run, and it was good to see friends from previous conferences. Thanks to the Georgetown faculty for all of the hard work and a superb weekend of learning.