Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Writing an Outstanding Appellate Brief

The most critical factor that influences an attorney’s likelihood of succeeding on appeal is the quality of the appellate brief. Indeed, the appellate brief is, in the vast majority of cases, far more important than oral argument. Thus, drafting a well-written and persuasive appellate brief is essential. Below are tips on how to draft an outstanding appellate brief.

1.    Frame the issue to maximize the persuasiveness of your argument

One of the most important aspects of writing an outstanding appellate brief is to frame the issue (or question presented) in a manner that makes the court want to rule in your favor. Of course, when framing the issue, do not be dishonest or hyperbolic. Instead, carefully present the issue so that it supports the remedy you seek. For example, assume that you represent a client who suffered injuries after slipping on ice in the parking lot of a Whole Foods supermarket and the lower court dismissed your case via summary judgment. When drafting the question presented, consider the following examples:

“The case involves whether the Appellee is liable for negligence”


“Is Whole Foods liable for injuries that a customer suffered after slipping on ice that Whole Foods failed to remove from its parking lot?”

The second example is far more persuasive than the first because it includes part of the factual background, particularly that Whole Foods failed to remove a dangerous condition from its parking lost that resulted in injuries to a customer. The first example does nothing but merely present the legal issue without any context whatsoever.

2.    Simplify the issue and argument

Regardless of the complexity of a case, attorneys should always try to simplify the issue and arguments for the court, and thus present them in an understandable and relatable manner. Judges (and clerks) are extremely busy; they read many briefs, some of which are quite voluminous, and will appreciate – and thus think favorably of – attorneys who present the issue and arguments in a clear and straightforward manner.

3.    Have an outstanding introduction

An outstanding introduction sets the tone for the entire brief. If you impress and persuade the court at the beginning of your brief, you will make an excellent first impression, gain credibility, and enhance the persuasive value of your arguments. To draft an outstanding introduction, include the following:

  • Draft a powerful opening sentence that explains why you should prevail
  • Tell the court exactly what you want (i.e., the remedy you seek)
  • Briefly present the most persuasive facts and legal authority that support your position
  • Include a theme that connects all of your arguments

Finally, in the introduction, tell the court what you are going to say in your brief and thus provide the court with a roadmap of your legal argument.

4.    Tell a story

Boring briefs, like boring books or movies, will not persuade your audience (the judges). Like everyone else, judges appreciate and will view favorably briefs that use narrative techniques to describe the characters, the setting, and the theme. In so doing, you give context to your arguments, humanize your clients, and provide the court with a realistic portrait of the facts. In other words, don’t simply recite the relevant facts and law. Tell a good story. Otherwise, judges may merely skim your brief. When that happens, your chances of succeeding diminish substantially.

5.    Don’t argue the facts (unless absolutely necessary)

Appellate judges defer to the lower court’s factual findings – and for good reason. The lower court is in the best position to evaluate the evidence and make an informed decision regarding the facts. Thus, in your brief, do not argue the facts unless your issue involves a factual determination. But that should be the exception, not the rule. The most successful appellate briefs typically focus on attacking an issue of law, not fact.

6.    Know the standard of review

Be sure to know the standard of review that the court will use to decide your case (e.g., abuse of discretion, de novo, clear error). The standard of review is critical because it provides you with the criteria upon which the court will evaluate your arguments, such as the level of deference that will be afforded to the trial court’s findings. As such, your arguments should always be drafted in light of the relevant standard of review.

7.    Be honest and acknowledge unfavorable law and facts

Don’t make the mistake of concealing unfavorable law or facts. The court (or its clerks) will find the law or facts that you omitted, and your credibility will diminish substantially when questioned about the omission. Instead, acknowledge unfavorable law or facts and explain why they do not affect the remedy you seek. In so doing, you will garner credibility with the court and have the opportunity to address issues that your adversary will surely raise in the opposing brief.

8.    Only present strong legal arguments

Be selective regarding the legal arguments that you include in your brief. Weak arguments detract from the credibility of your brief and the strength of your arguments. Thus, do not “throw in the kitchen sink” and hope that the court will support one of your arguments. For the same reason, be careful about arguing in the alternative. If you do, make sure that your alternative argument is sufficiently strong to merit inclusion in the brief.

9.    Write, re-write, and edit your brief

Appellate briefs should be well-written and avoid the common mistakes that are characteristic of poor writing. For example, don’t be repetitive. Avoid block quotes. Eliminate unnecessary words and adjectives. Don’t use over-the-top language, or attack your adversary or the lower court. Avoid long sentences (i.e., those over twenty-five words) and long paragraphs. Delete complex or esoteric words. Be concise. Avoid footnotes. Make sure that your brief is well-organized and flows logically. And remember that, no matter how strong your legal arguments, bad writing will detract from the persuasiveness of those arguments, which can result in losing the appeal.

10.    Don’t overwhelm the court with needless legal authority

Be sure not to include unnecessary or repetitive legal authority. Thus, do not include string cites that have little or no persuasive value unless you intend to discuss the facts of those cases and explain why they are relevant. For example, when citing well-settled legal propositions (e.g., the negligence standard), there is no need to cite ten cases. Cite one or two cases and make sure that, in the cases you cite, the courts reached outcomes that are consistent with your position. Additionally, unless your case involves a truly unsettled legal issue, be careful of reasoning by analogy because courts will often easily distinguish cases from a different area of the law. The best approach is to discuss the cases most relevant to your issue and explain why they support the outcome you seek.

11.    Don’t use boilerplate conclusions

Make sure that the conclusion of your brief is as powerful as the introduction because you want to leave the court with a favorable impression of your argument. For example, do not simply state, “For the foregoing reasons, the district court’s decision should be reversed.” This says nothing. Instead, in a few sentences, provide the strongest factual and legal bases for granting the relief you seek

12.    Put yourself in the adversary’s and court’s shoes

When drafting an appellate brief, attorneys can become so convinced of the merits of their argument that they lose sight of the opposing arguments, unfavorable facts, or competing policies that the adversary and court will likely raise. Consequently, be sure to objectively evaluate your brief. For example, consider how the court might react to your arguments. What questions might it ask? What weaknesses might it find? What legal or policy arguments might it raise? Viewing your brief objectively enables you to find weaknesses in your argument and revise your brief to effectively address those weaknesses.

13.    Read great appellate briefs

If you want to become an outstanding brief writer, read excellent briefs before you write. For example, read Chief Justice John Roberts’s brief in Alaska v. Environmental Protection Agency, which Roberts drafted when he was a partner at Hogan & Hartson, LLP (now Hogan & Lovells). Roberts’s brief is truly outstanding and demonstrates how narrative and persuasive writing techniques can be used to create a cogent legal argument. You can read the brief at the following link:

Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink


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