Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Saturday, January 20, 2024

An Appealing Definition of Persuasion

Happy 2024!  I hope you are off to a productive and healthy new year. 

In my classroom, we started the new year with a move to persuasive writing.  I began class with a discussion of some differences between argument and persuasion.  My students and I also discussed whether using a focus more on persuasion—and not just argument—might help us a tiny bit as we navigate these times of intense political and social division.  Of course, we have no answers for our national debate, but we agreed using the most appealing communication possible will make us the most persuasive advocates, hopefully helping us rise above mere loud argument.  

In class, we drew a distinction between baldly setting out claims for a client as “argument” and using appealing language to convince a tribunal to rule for the client as “persuasion.”  We reviewed argument as “the act or process of arguing, reasoning, or discussing,” as Merriam-Webster explains, noting some definitions include the idea of an “angry quarrel or disagreement.”  See https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/argument.  Then, I suggested my definition of persuasion.  I asked students to consider persuasion in appellate writing as “an attempt to modify behavior through appealing communication, which is organized, supported, clear, and always honest.”  We stressed the need for credibility, and also for communication that appeals with calmer language and clear connection to law and facts.  (For similar definitions, consider Dictionary.com’s explanation of “persuade” and “persuasion” as including “inducement” to “prevail on (a person) to do something, as by advising or urging.”  See https://www.dictionary.com/browse/persuasive;https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/persuasive.)

You might be thinking that some differences in these definitions of argument and persuasion are in the eye of the beholder, making part of this argument-persuasion idea a distinction without a difference.  Plus, many articles and books on appellate writing stress the need for advocates to avoid conclusions and instead persuasively explain precisely why courts should rule for their clients.  On the other hand, I have seen students approach appellate writing differently based on their concepts of persuasion and argument, prompting me to share this reminder on persuasion. 

Under changes the legislature made to California’s Education Code a few years ago, students in the public schools near my home no longer learn “persuasive” writing.  Instead, they focus on “argument” and what the Ed Code calls “argumentative essays.”  https://www2.cde.ca.gov/cacs/ela?c2=17%2C8%2C9%2C9&c0=2.  Often, these argumentative essays can use “evidence” from opinion or experience, see id., and my sons’ public school teachers emphasized argumentative word choice and strong presentation of the writers’ views.

When the graduates of this approach started trickling into my law school classes, I noticed these California public school students were better than some past students at crafting interest-catching  intro hooks, something I also stress in my persuasive writing teaching.  However, I soon realized several of these students also wrote first drafts less focused on deep analysis.  Too often, their writing had a harsh, argumentative tone but weak connections to the key parts of the precedential cases.  This interesting difference made me think more about how the way we understand the role of our briefs’ “Argument” sections underpins the entire way we draft those briefs.  

While the California Ed Code approach allows connections to supporting “evidence,” I believe the ability to use opinion as evidence undercuts this approach.  Thus, too many of my students who learned high school writing under the new Ed Code initially focused more on their own opinions than on true support from case law.  Their papers suggested a result on appeal based on their analysis of the facts only.  In other words, students engaged in bare arguments simply saying clients should win because of X facts, instead of using persuasion showing how courts should rule for clients based on the way other courts ruled on X and similar facts.  

I see only a handful of students a year from local public schools (or any other schools), and thus I have a very small sample.  Moreover, these students are often quite grateful for constructive criticism and are very open to learning more concrete ways to persuade with appealing, deep connections to our cases.  Nonetheless, the way I saw the California Ed Code change students’ focus helped me see the need to define persuasion expressly. 

Taking this lesson from my students, I do my best to think of genuine persuasion and not only argument as I write.  As you craft your own appellate arguments, hopefully this new twist on the reminder to always persuade and not simply state conclusions will be helpful to you as well.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2024/01/an-appealing-definition-of-persuasion.html

Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink

Comments

Post a comment