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.