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.