Tuesday, July 27, 2021
Professionalism in Legal Writing – Dos & Don’ts, Part IV
The Supreme Court of Ohio, Commission on Professionalism, has published Professionalism Dos & Don’ts: Legal Writing. Each Do and Don’t has several subpoints. Over the next few months, I plan to take a more in-depth look at some of these Dos and Don’ts and offer examples and suggestions for how appellate advocates can implement the Dos and avoid the Don’ts. This is the fourth post in the series.
Do adopt a clear and persuasive style:
- Do put material facts in context.
The facts we select to include in a brief and how we present those facts are important. But which facts should we include, and which should we omit? We must include all legally relevant facts and background facts that are necessary to understand the legally relevant facts. But we also have to present the facts (both good and bad as I discussed in an earlier post) in a way that tells our client’s story effectively and persuasively. And sometimes that means including context or material that makes the story more interesting.
Take this example from a brief filed by now Chief Justice Roberts in State of Alaska v. EPA, No. 02-658:
The Red Dog Mine. For generations, Inupiat Eskimos hunting and fishing in the DeLong Mountains in Northwest Alaska had been aware of orange- and red-stained creek beds in which fish could not survive. In the 1960s, a bush pilot and part-time prospector by the name of Bob Baker noticed striking discolorations in the hills and creek beds of a wide valley in the western DeLongs. Unable to land his plane on the rocky tundra to investigate, Baker alerted the U.S. Geological Survey. Exploration of the area eventually led to the discovery of a wealth of zinc and lead deposits. Although Baker died before the significance of his observations became known, his faithful traveling companion—an Irish Setter who often flew shotgun—was immortalized by a geologist who dubbed the creek Baker had spotted “Red Dog” Creek. Mark Skok, Alaska’s Red Dog Mine: Beating the Odds, Minerals Today, at 8 (June 1991).
The case was about the Clean Air Act, “best available control technology,” and permitting authorities. Adding details about a bush pilot and his dog was a way to make what most would view as a boring case a bit more interesting. And of course, the author tied these details into his argument, at least indirectly, later in the brief.
- Do write in a professional and dignified manner.
Legal writing is professional writing and thus, we should write in a manner that recognizes the importance of our work as writers; and in a way that recognizes the importance of our primary audience—appellate judges. We shouldn’t write in a way that insults our opponents or the court. We must not include ad hominem attacks or sarcasm in our briefs. Attempts at humor should be avoided too—none of us are as funny as we think we are.
I know some (perhaps many) will disagree, but I think it’s ok to use contractions. They make our writing more conversational and less stilted, but not less professional. And start a sentence with and, but, or, or so now and then. Doing so has the same effect.
- Do put citations at the end of a sentence.
We must cite the authorities we rely upon, and we must do so each time that we rely upon them. That’s simple enough. There is some debate, however, about whether citations should be placed in footnotes or the text. I think they should be placed in the text for two reasons. First, judges are used to seeing citations in the text not in footnotes and our job is to make the judge’s job easier. By doing something the judge doesn’t expect or isn’t accustomed to, we make their job more difficult. Second, citations convey more information than just where to find an authority. Citations tell us the value of the authority, i.e., is it binding or persuasive, the age of the authority, etc. Of course, there are ways to convey that information and still use footnotes, but it is easier to just include the citation in the text.
- Do use pinpoint citations when they would be helpful.
They’re always helpful.
 Yes. I used “their” as a singular pronoun. That’s ok too. https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/