Wednesday, February 19, 2020
Continue Teaching the New Dogs, Old Tricks: The Value of Teaching Appellate Advocacy to Law Students
A majority of U.S. law schools teach persuasive writing and oral advocacy to 1L and 2L students as part of required courses.1 These courses often focus on appellate advocacy. This model has existed for many years, gaining steam especially in the late 1980s after the ABA criticized law schools for failing to properly train law students in appellate advocacy.2 Some law professors and law students question the value of teaching appellate advocacy when we know that many lawyers will not actually engage in writing formal appellate briefs or participate in formal appellate oral arguments during their careers. Through this post I support the continued teaching of the skills required to write an appellate brief and make an appellate argument because the skills taught and tested when doing this kind of work are essential lawyering skills across a wide range of jobs held by lawyers. Lawyers are professional communicators—writing and speaking are essential skills of the profession.
First, writing an appellate brief requires careful, precise, and accurate work. Students must work with and follow procedural and local rules that dictate how to format a particular document, what information must be included, and when and how the document produced must be filed. Students must learn to carefully read a record and research the law to craft legal arguments within parameters set by the rules, including page limits and section requirements that force writers to write and rewrite their work until it is sharp and concise. All of this must be done while the writer is persuasively and accurately explaining to the court why a particular argument has merit when considering the governing law and the facts. The writer must also properly cite the law and the record. These skills are all skills that are valued in the jobs that lawyers hold, from actually working in a litigation setting as an advocate, to advising and counseling clients in a more transactional practice, to working as a judge or a law clerk, just to name a few settings.
Second, oral communication skills are critical for lawyers. While not all lawyers will choose to engage in a litigation-type practice in which arguing to courts is a part of the work, most lawyers will need to “argue” or explain persuasively in their jobs. Appellate advocacy involves presenting arguments as well as responding to questions; it requires advocates to think on their feet. Lawyers who train in the skills of appellate advocacy will develop skills that will transfer to trial advocacy, negotiation, and other tasks requiring effective oral communication. Transactional lawyers will need to discuss positions with clients, orally communicate terms of a deal or a position, and negotiate terms of contracts. Many of the more formal skills required for oral argument will transfer to this transactional work. Even for those lawyers whose jobs do not include a focus on oral presentations, training to skillfully and thoughtfully respond to questions and clearly present legal and factual analysis is training that is an asset to most everyone in any type of legal job.
Third, developing appellate advocacy skills in law schools introduces students to professional and ethical norms that serve to give these burgeoning lawyers a taste of the legal profession and its traditions. Following rules, extending deference in a professional manner to the court, and showing respect for opposing counsel are all norms that should be learned in law schools and carried into the profession. Participating in the ceremony and discourse required in courses that teach appellate advocacy initiate these soon-to-be lawyers and welcome them into the legal community.
In conclusion, let’s continue to teach the new dogs the old tricks. Let’s strive to improve how we do it. Let’s even consider adding to appellate advocacy instruction, instruction and experiences in a variety of written and oral communication settings, like contract negotiation and drafting, trial advocacy, international advocacy, treaty negotiation and drafting, and other areas where lawyers are called upon to use their communication skills. We can value the foundational skills taught and learned through courses in appellate advocacy and supplement legal education with even more experiences that call on students to learn how to communicate effectively.
1 ALWD/LWI Survey 2018, Q. 6.4, https://www.lwionline.org/resources/surveys; Section on Legal Education & Admission to the Bar, Sourcebook on Legal Writing Programs 28, 46 (2006).
2 Michael Vitiello, Teaching Effective Oral Argument Skills: Forget About the Drama Coach, 75 Miss. L.J. 869, 869 (2006).
February 19, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Many of the legal standards courts apply to appellate issues resolve around the inevitably fuzzy concept of reasonableness. The reasonable person, reasonable expectations of privacy, reasonable observers, reasonably prudent consumers, reasonable suspicion—all of these tests require advocates to conjure some ideal of what reasonable people might do or think in a given factual scenario. And for most advocates, that standard can seem hopelessly inchoate.
One problem is determining the sources of a “reasonable” standard. Consider the determination of when a person has been “seized” for Fourth Amendment purposes, and thus the point at which officers must have a requisite level of suspicion to support that seizure. The touchstone test, established in United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980), suggests that officers have seized an individual when, “in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.” The test leaves unanswered whose opinions count in determining what a reasonable person might believe. Does the test measure what a police officer thinks it reasonable for an average citizen to believe—as it seemingly must if the test is to have any utility guiding day-to-day police activity? Or does the test focus upon what the average citizen believes? If the latter, must the test look to the reasonable beliefs of “average citizens” at the highest level of abstraction, or can it take into account the specific characteristics of the defendant, such as race?
The latter question arose recently in the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Spears, No. 27945 (S.C.), where the Court asked at oral argument whether the black defendant’s race should affect the Court’s evaluation of when a reasonable person no longer felt free to leave and was thus seized by police. The South Carolina Supreme Court noted the Mendenhall court’s view, echoed later by the Seventh Circuit, that although the defendant’s race is “not irrelevant,” it is also not dispositive. The Court also carefully noted the Tenth Circuit’s recent suggestion that race is not a relevant factor in the reasonable person test; that court argued that a racial factor would render the test impossibly complex for officers in the field given the “divergent attitudes towards law enforcement” within racial groups. The South Carolina Supreme Court was able to sidestep the issue by finding it unpreserved due to the defendant’s failure to raise it below. But the issue continues to percolate in other State Supreme Courts.
This argument has echoes in broader theories behind the interpretation of legal texts. Originalist accounts of constitutional interpretation, for instance, set their sights on constraining judicial discretion by assuring that would-be activist judges rule according to the law rather than their policy preferences. But the proper sources for originalist interpretation remain unclear. Are the pre-enactment writings of the text’s authors relevant as part of a narrower effort to find the original intent behind the document? What about dictionaries or legal treatises available before (or after) enactment that might shed light upon the popularly understood meanings of a text? And should the interpretive methods taken today echo the interpretive methods that the lawyers or judges of the time of the enactment might have relied upon?
Neither the narrower question of interpreting a specific issue of reasonable beliefs, nor the broader question of interpreting the relevant sources of original intent or meaning, has a clear answer that makes appellate advocates’ jobs easy. But advocates should not resign themselves to guesswork. Definite answers may be impossible in either project. Yet the effort to use all available methods to guide decision-makers can still lend clarity to an apparently insoluble legal inquiry. Though it is hard to say who has the better of the arguments about the sources and scope of inquiry, it may nonetheless be an argument worth having. Appellate advocates should strive to understand the problems of source in the fuzzy standards they may need to deploy in advocacy, then do their best to resolve the problems by choosing sources in a logical, up-front manner. Those with the most candid and convincing accounts are likely to find success on appeal.
 United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 558 (1980); United States v. Smith, 794 F.3d 681, 688 (7th Cir. 2015).
 United States v. Easley, 911 F.3d 1074, 1082 (10th Cir. 2018), cert. denied, 2019 WL 1886117 (U.S. Apr. 29, 2019).
 See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Evelyn, No. SJC-12808 (Mass.).
February 18, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, February 14, 2020
Each week, the Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup presents a few tidbits of news and Twitter posts from the past week concerning appellate advocacy. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send a quick note to either (1) Dan Real at DReal@Creighton.edu or on Twitter @Daniel_L_Real or (2) Catharine Du Bois at DuBoisLegalWriting@gmail.com or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting.
US Supreme Court Opinions and News:
Texas has petitioned the Supreme Court to declare a California interstate travel-ban unconstitutional. The travel ban prohibits state-funded travel to states that fail to provide sufficient protections for LGBTQ people. Texas was added to the list of banned states in 2017 because of a Texas law allowing foster care agencies to use sincerely held religious beliefs as a basis to deny placements to gay couples. Texas argues that the ban violates the Dormant Commerce Clause, the Privileges and Immunities Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause. See the State of Texas filing. Reports are available from The Texas Tribune and Fox News and by Josh Blackman at The Volokh Conspiracy.
The Supreme Court issued a memorandum formalizing some previously unwritten procedural rules. This memorandum discusses rules on scheduling private conferences and deadlines for petitions for certiorari. Bloomberg Law has this report on the memorandum.
Adam Feldman has posted “About this Term: OT 2019” at his Empirical SCOTUS blog.
In Supreme Court historical news, Christopher Brooks wrote an online essay about the first black man allowed to argue before the Supreme Court. And the Harvard Law School Library has released some of the papers of Justice Antonin Scalia. Harvard Law Today reported here.
Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:
The Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit threw out the emoluments claim against the president brought by 215 members of Congress. The DC Circuit applied Supreme Court precedent from House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill (2019) and Raines v. Byrd (1997), holding that “’individual members’ of the Congress ‘lack standing to assert the institutional interests of a legislature.’” The order reversed a lower court holding that the members had standing. The order is here. The many reports on this ruling include those from The New York Times , The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, and Politico.
The Third Circuit ruled in favor of Philadelphia, finding that the city can prohibit an employer's asking an applicant about salary history. The ruling was welcomed by wage-equity proponents, who claim the law could reduce gender- and race-based wage discrimination. See reports from the National Law Review and the Philadelphia Inquirer and an essay about the equal pay implications by Professor Joanna L. Grossman. The ruling is here.
After ruling that Arizona’s “ballot harvesting” law discriminates against minority voters (see The Weekly Round Up, January 31), the Ninth Circuit granted Arizona’s request to stay the ruling so that Arizona may seek Supreme Court review. The stay means that the law will remain in effect at least through the presidential primary in March. See report in the Arizona Daily Star and AP News.
The Ninth Circuit upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit that argued that an Oregon school district policy violated the Constitution and civil rights law by allowing a transgender student to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. The court found that the policy did not violate the rights to cisgender students or their parents and dismissed the case. See reports from KATU News, Bloomberg (subscription required), and the ACLU. The ruling is here.
Brooklyn Federal Judge Jack Weinstein, the longest-serving federal judge in the country, has retired after a 53-year career. See The New York Daily News report.
Tuesday, February 11, 2020
The Supreme Court of the United States recently issued new guidelines to help practitioners understand its procedures (internal and otherwise) during the certiorari stage. While the guidelines do not appear to change established practice, they do help practitioners understand how the Court operates during this stage.
The guidelines clarify when a response is required and when it should be filed, along with how and when a motion to extend time to file a response may be filed. They also address how a waiver of the right to respond may be filed, and when a reply should be filed.
The last point has confused some practitioners. There is no deadline to file a reply on petition for certiorari. However, if the reply is filed before distribution to chambers, then it is included in the preliminary packet. There is an advantage to getting that "last word" in front of the Court from the beginning of their review.
To help understand the timing, the guidelines go on to describe when petitions are scheduled for conference. This timing depends on both certain case events and the type of case ("paid" versus in forma pauperis), so if you do have a case on petition, take the time to read the guideline so you can understand exactly when it will be set for conference, and then key your deadlines off that analysis.
These guidelines appear to be part of an ongoing process by the Supreme Court to help new or infrequent practitioners understand a system that can be a bit of black box, starting with guidelines on amicus briefing issued last October. Hopefully that process will continue.
Sunday, February 2, 2020
When drafting an appellate brief, your goal should be to produce a well-written document that maximizes the persuasive value of your arguments. In so doing, be sure to avoid the following mistakes.
1. You fail to follow the local court rules
The local court rules typically contain requirements regarding, among other things, the cover of your brief, the word count, spacing, font size, and font type. Failing to follow the local court rules demonstrates a lack of diligence and respect for the court, and undermines the credibility of your arguments.
2. You seek a remedy that is outside of the court’s authority
When drafting your arguments, do not seek a remedy that the court is not authorized to provide (or include information that is not included in the record below).
Consider this example. You represent a state that recently enacted a statute outlawing all abortions and the American Civil Liberties Union challenges the statute’s constitutionality. A district court holds that the statute violates the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment encompasses a right, in some instances, to terminate a pregnancy.
You decide to appeal the court’s ruling and, in your brief, you argue that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, that the appellate court should overrule Roe, and that the statute should be upheld. However, the appellate court lacks the authority to overturn precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court and, as such, your argument will be rejected.
Additionally, you should not make arguments based on facts that are not included in the record below or that were not preserved in the lower court.
3. You overstate the relevance of precedent
Although it is vital to address favorable and unfavorable precedent in your brief, you should never overstate the relevance of favorable precedent. Specifically, do not represent that the facts of a prior case are “strikingly similar” if they are not and do not mischaracterize a prior holding to provide support for your position. The court (and your adversary) will almost certainly notice this error and your credibility, along with your client’s chances of success, will diminish substantially.
Instead, you should explain why precedent, although distinguishable, nonetheless supports the remedy you seek.
4. You are not direct with the court
Appellate judges are extremely busy and read thousands of briefs. Thus, make sure that you present the legal issues and relevant arguments in a direct, understandable, and honest manner. Specifically, at the beginning of your brief, be sure to do the following:
- Identify the errors in the lower court’s decision
- State the remedy that you would like the court to provide
- Explain why you are entitled to this remedy
- Briefly provide the facts and relevant law that support your position
If an appellate court struggles to identify the relevant facts and arguments in your brief, the judges will not view you – or your arguments – favorably.
5. You do not consider the relevant standard of review
Appellate courts decide cases using specific standards of review. For example, appellate courts apply the “abuse of discretion” standard when reviewing factual issues, in which the courts defer substantially to the lower court’s findings. When reviewing legal questions, however, appellate courts apply the “de novo” standard of review, in which the courts give no deference to the lower court’s findings.
Thus, your arguments should be drafted in light of the applicable standard of review, and you should explain in detail and with specificity why your arguments, under the relevant standard, support the relief you seek.
6. You do not organize your brief effectively
Your goal should be to draft a brief that is readable, understandable, and easy to follow. A well-organized brief typically includes the following:
- Headings and subheadings that are rarely, if ever, longer than one sentence
- A roadmap at the beginning of the brief, in which you outline your arguments and state the order in which they will be presented
- Paragraphs that only discuss a single point or issue and that always begin with a topic sentence
If your brief is not organized effectively, you will diminish the persuasive value of your arguments (and you will probably annoy the judges).
7. You file an unnecessarily lengthy brief
Given that appellate judges are very busy and read thousands of briefs, you should make sure that your brief is as concise as possible. Unnecessarily lengthy briefs will likely annoy the judges, distract the judges from the substance of your arguments, and reduce the persuasive value of your brief. Thus, when drafting your brief, be sure to omit excess words, unnecessary facts, and irrelevant legal arguments.
Simply put, less is often more.
8. You make basic writing or stylistic errors
Your brief should not contain errors that cast doubt on the quality of your writing or your competence as an attorney. For example, do not:
- Use over-the-top language (e.g., don’t say “The court’s decision in the prior case made no sense and was utterly devoid of even the semblance of reasoned legal analysis,” or “The defendant’s arguments are ridiculous and not even worthy of a response”)
- Use block quotes unless absolutely necessary
- Include overly long paragraphs
- Repeat arguments
- Use complex or esoteric words
Ultimately, to ensure that your brief is of the highest quality – and avoids these mistakes – be sure to rewrite and edit your brief, and proofread it on paper.
Wednesday, January 29, 2020
The record on appeal includes “original papers and exhibits filed in the district court,” a “transcript of the proceedings” from the district court, and a “certified copy of the docket entries.”1 Appellate courts across the country have similar rules. The trial lawyer works hard to present evidence to support the client’s case. The lawyer also works hard to create and present effective demonstrative evidence. Charts printed on large boards may be used to display data and other information supporting witness testimony. Physical models may represent a forest or the seabed and be used by an expert to explain testimony about run off or contamination. And more and more often, in place of these physical charts and models, electronic presentations may be used to demonstrate this information. A witness may testify while reviewing a video of a surgery or other procedure. Models may be shown electronically, the advantage being that the models can be quickly modified or added to as a person is testifying to demonstrate the testimony. These are all effective ways of delivering information to the jury and the court.
One of the challenges for the lawyer after trying a case with demonstrative evidence includes ensuring that these exhibits, essential to the case at trial, are accessible in forms such that they can be easily transferred to and reviewed by an appellate court, should there be an appeal. Appellate courts prefer to review information in electronic form or paper form; bulky exhibits will not ordinarily be part of the appellate court’s review.2 Thus, the trial lawyer should consider photographing bulky exhibits and entering such photographs into the record so that they can be considered by the appellate court. Information presented electronically should also be included in the record, either by printing and introducing the information in its paper form or by ensuring that the electronic version is preserved either on a flash drive or in an electronic record or transcript created by the court reporter. If the electronic exhibits are manipulated or otherwise changed as part of the testimony, the lawyer must be sure that all versions of what is presented are captured for the record.
As technology evolves, lawyers need to adapt to ensure that their exhibits are in forms and on media that will be accessible to the appellate courts. Lawyers must also ensure that all exhibits are properly identified in the record and that the record is clear about which exhibits were entered and not entered into evidence. Lawyers must abide by procedural rules and local court rules regarding these issues, of course. Moreover, they must think and act strategically to guarantee that their exhibits will be considered by the trial and the appellate courts. Lawyers should not rely on court staff to manage this information.
1 Fed. R. App. P. 10(a).
Sunday, December 15, 2019
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: https://www.findlawimages.com/efile/supreme/briefs/02-658/02-658.mer.pet.pdf.
Saturday, December 14, 2019
In this season of giving, we have the gifts of two new scathing appellate opinions on poor persuasion and civility to remind us all our courts really want for Christmas (and any holiday) is clear, ethical writing. While we have plenty of past examples of appellate courts taking poor writers to task, in November, we gained two more published opinions building on past decisions and reminding us truly persuasive writing is both straightforward and civil.
The blogosphere has already discussed the November 7, 2019 Seventh Circuit opinion in McCurry v. Kenco Logistics, where the court explained: “Bad writing does not normally warrant sanctions, but we draw the line at gibberish.” 942 F.3d 783, 792 (7th Cir. 2019). For a fun review of McCurry listing the many biting phrases the court used, including the new signal “(all errors in original),” see Kevin Underhill’s November 8, 2019 blog. https://loweringthebar.net/2019/11/seventh-circuit-we-draw-the-line-at-gibberish.html.
The McCurry court cited Stanard v. Nygren, 658 F.3d 792, 801–02 (7th Cir. 2011), a Seventh Circuit decision ordering an attorney to should show cause why he should not be disciplined for poor writing and lack of civility. Counsel in Stanard first gained notoriety representing alleged repeat wife-killer Drew Peterson in civil litigation, and faced criticism for his past litigation tactics. See Howard Posner, “Mind Your Grammar,” Cal. Lawyer (Nov. 2012). In Stanard, the court chastised counsel for “Lack of punctuation,” “Near incomprehensibility,” “Failure to follow basic directions,” “Grammatical and syntactical errors,” and incorrect statements of fact and law. 658 F.3d at 797-800. According to Judge Sykes, who also authored McCurry: “At least 23 sentences [in the Stanard brief] contained 100 or more words. This includes sentences of 385, 345, and 291 words.” Stanard, 658 F.3d at 798. Moreover, counsel’s refusal to follow court orders and lack of respect for the trial court hindered his representation of his landowner client in Stanard. Id. at 800-02.
For years, I have used Stanard in appellate advocacy teaching to support the idea truly persuasive writing is accurate and precise. I also use the case to show how lack of civility to the court and others inhibits persuasion.
Now, we can also point students to McCurry, and we have a new case from California expressly saying lack of civility is unpersuasive. On November 22, 2019, the California Court of Appeal issued its opinion in Briganti v. Chow, ___ Cal. App. 4th __, 2019 WL 6242111, *1 (Nov. 22, 2019), and ordered the opinion published “to draw attention to our concluding note on civility, sexism, and persuasive brief writing.” See Debra Cassens Weiss, “Appeals court sees lawyer's reference to 'attractive' judge in brief as a 'teachable moment' on sexism,” http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/appeals-court-sees-lawyers-reference-to-attractive-judge-in-brief-as-a-teachable-moment-on-sexism (Nov. 27, 2019).
Briganti involved, in part, an anti-SLAPP motion regarding claims based on Facebook posts. 2019 WL 6242111, *2-4. In the trial court, then Superior Court Judge Feuer, now a Court of Appeal Justice, made several rulings for and against defendant Chow, and the Briganti court affirmed those rulings. Id. After discussing the merits, the court added an opinion section titled “A Note on Civility, Sexism, and Persuasive Brief Writing,” explaining: “we would be remiss if we did not also comment on a highly inappropriate assessment of certain personal characteristics of the trial judge, including her appearance, [in] Chow’s reply brief. We do so not to punish or embarrass, but to take advantage of a teachable moment.” Id. at *4.
This “teachable moment” was a chance to remind us all sexism, in any form, is unprofessional, unpersuasive, and uncivil. Chow’s reply brief began with comments Justice Feuer was “an attractive, hard-working, brilliant, young, politically well-connected judge on a fast track for the California Supreme Court or Federal Bench,” noting “[w]ith due respect, every so often, an attractive, hard-working, brilliant, young, politically well-connected judge can err! Let’s review the errors!” Id. at *4. When questioned at oral argument, Chow’s counsel “stated he intended to compliment the trial judge.” Id. Nevertheless, the appellate court concluded the brief “reflect[ed] gender bias and disrespect for the judicial system.” Id. According to the court: “Calling a woman judge — now an Associate Justice of this court — ‘attractive,’ . . . is inappropriate because it is both irrelevant and sexist. This is true whether intended as a compliment or not. Such comments would not likely have been made about a male judge.” The court cited the California Code of Judicial Ethics, which compels judges to require lawyers “to refrain from” bias based on gender. Id. at *5. As the Briganti court explained, “as judicial officers, we can and should take steps to help reduce incivility,” by “calling gendered incivility out for what it is and insisting it not be repeated.” Id.
The court ended its opinion: “We conclude by extending our thanks to the many talented lawyers whose excellent briefs and scrupulous professionalism make our work product better and our task more enjoyable.” Id According to Briganti, good brief-writing “requires hard work, rigorous analysis, and careful attention to detail.” Thus, while courts “welcome creativity and do not require perfection,” Briganti “simply did not find the peculiar style and content of [Chow’s] brief’s opening paragraph appropriate, helpful, or persuasive.” Id.
Counsel for Chow appears unrepentant, telling the Metropolitan News-Enterprise the court “totally missed the boat on this one, attacking the messenger . . . for using one generally descriptive word ‘attractive’” and exclaiming “Shame on the DCA! Shame on the DCA!” regarding what used to be called the District Court of Appeal. MetNews Staff Writer, “Reference in Brief to Female Judge as ‘Attractive’ Is Sexist: Justice Currey Says Note Is Made of Inappropriateness of Conduct for Instructional Purpose,” http://www.metnews.com/articles/2019/attractive112519.htm (Nov. 25, 2019). While the Briganti court noted the case did not warrant sanctions, the California State Bar has sanctioned Chow’s counsel in the past. Id.
Despite the Briganti counsel’s rejection of the opinion, the rest of us can add Briganti to McCurry and Stanard, among others, on our personal lists of cases reminding us all courts really want is clear, honest writing that helps them reach proper decisions. And for those of us teaching and mentoring new legal writers, these November gifts from appellate courts help us remind young attorneys true persuasion is civil and thoughtful. Happy holidays!
December 14, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, December 6, 2019
Each week, the Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup presents a few tidbits of news and Twitter posts from the past week concerning appellate advocacy. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send a quick note to either (1) Dan Real at DReal@Creighton.edu or on Twitter @Daniel_L_Real or (2) Catharine Du Bois at DuBoisLegalWriting@gmail.com or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting
US Supreme Court Opinions and News:
- A few weeks ago, this column noted that four federal executions had been stayed, effectively blocking the recent Justice Department decision to resume federal executions. This week, after an emergency bid to a federal appeals court was rejected, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to reverse that stay. The request asks that the executions be allowed to continue early next week. See more from CNN and Reuters.
- After the Second Circuit refused to block the House of Representative’s subpoena for Donald Trump’s financial records, the President has petitioned the Supreme Court to void the subpoena. APNews. The Second Circuit ruling finds the House Committee’s “interests in pursuing their constitutional legislative function is a far more significant public interest than whatever public interest inheres in avoiding the risk of a Chief Executive’s distraction." Order at page 105.
- This week, the Supreme Court heard argument on the Second Amendment in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. City of New York, the first major gun-related case before them in nearly a decade. The case centers on NYC gun ownership laws, which limited the ability to take a licensed firearm out of the home. However, the laws have since been amended, removing the contested restrictions. Thus, one of the more pertinent questions before the court is whether the case is moot. See NYT OpEd here.
- The Court is considering an appeal about whether the US Constitution gives homeless people the right to sleep on the sidewalk. Last year, the Ninth Circuit held that it was cruel and unusual punishment for a city to “prosecut[e] people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to.” Opinion p. 4.
Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:
- A recent State Department rule requiring that foreigners disclose their social media accounts when applying for a visa is the target of a new federal lawsuit. The suit raises privacy and surveillance issues and argues that the rule violates the US Constitution’s rights to free speech and association. See NYTimes article here.
- The Eleventh Circuit heard argument this week in a case that could set precedent on the issue of bathroom access by transgender high school students. The lower-court ruling on appeal granted the transgender petitioner access to the boy’s bathroom at his high school in Florida. See AJC article here.
State Appeals Court News
- The Ohio Court of Appeals has overturned a zoning board refusal to allow the company “Broke Ass Phone” to use its name on a street sign. The court ruled that the word “ass” when used in the phrase “broke ass phone” is neither obscene nor immoral and that the company had a First Amendment right to use the word. See ABA Journal story here.
Saturday, November 30, 2019
The number of amicus briefs filed in cases pending before the United States Supreme Court has increased dramatically in recent years. However, the degree to which amicus briefs impact the Court’s decisions varies dramatically. Some amicus briefs are never read, while others are cited in the Court’s decisions. What is the difference between an amicus brief that garners the Court’s attention and one that is discarded and never read by any of the Court’s Justices?
1. Good amicus briefs make original arguments.
Before drafting an amicus brief, consider that the Court receives and reviews thousands of briefs each year at the certiorari and merits stage. Given this fact, how can you convince Supreme Court law clerks, who screen amicus briefs and decide if they should be read by one or more of the Justices, that your amicus brief should be read and considered by the Court?
You must provide legal and policy arguments, or relevant data, that neither the petitioner nor respondent have presented, and that are relevant to and necessary for a fair disposition of the case. Indeed, interviews with former Supreme Court clerks revealed that, to merit consideration, an amicus brief must provide arguments or information not presented by the parties:
Nearly all clerks (83%) skimmed or looked over every amicus brief filed. However, those clerks reported spending additional time to carefully reading only those briefs that appeared to contribute new and useful information or arguments. One clerk described his personal system of screening amicus briefs as ‘separating the wheat from the chaff.’ Since clerks generally relied foremost on the merits briefs in order to prepare for cases, amicus filers needed to complement the information supplied by the parties in order to earn anything beyond cursory consideration.
This makes sense. After all, why would the Court or its clerks take the time to read your brief if it presents unoriginal arguments and thus offers little, if any, value?
Accordingly, attorneys should not submit “me too” amicus briefs, which merely repeat or offer support for the arguments contained in the petitioner’s or the respondent’s briefs. The only exception to this rule is if the amicus brief’s author is a well-known and reputable attorney or organization, such as the Federalist Society, Cato Institute, or American Civil Liberties Union. In these instances, the reputation of the amicus brief’s author will lend credibility to the arguments of either the petitioner or respondent. But this is the exception, not the rule.
2. Attract the Court’s attention at the beginning of the amicus brief.
Given that the Supreme Court’s clerks receive thousands of certiorari petitions, and that in each term the Court reads hundreds of merits briefs, be sure to capture the clerks’ attention at the beginning of your amicus brief. For example, your point headings in the table of contents should demonstrate that the arguments presented are original, relevant, and valuable to the Court. In fact, you should assume (although this may not always be the case), that the clerks will only glance at your brief to discern quickly whether it warrants consideration by the Court.
Indeed, interviews with former Supreme Court clerks confirm this fact:
To facilitate their screening, clerks relied upon a number of identifying features, such as the summary of arguments, table of contents and section headings - all required features of any amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court - to determine whether the brief could contribute anything novel.
Consequently, by demonstrating your brief’s value at the earliest opportunity, you enhance the chances that it will garner the Court’s attention.
3. Explain why you (individual or organization) are particularly well-suited to assist the Court in resolving the legal issue(s).
Be sure to explain why you possess the relevant experience and expertise necessary to assist the Court in deciding the legal issue(s) in a particular case. And if you lack such expertise, you should reconsider your decision to file an amicus brief. For example, if you are a patent or tax attorney, submitting an amicus brief in a death penalty or abortion case would likely reduce the chances that the Justices will read your amicus brief. After all, absent very compelling circumstances, why is a patent or tax attorney particular well-suited to decide, for example, if legal injection violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution? Conversely, if the American Civil Liberties Union or Cato Institute submits an amicus brief in a case involving the First Amendment, it is highly likely that both organizations’ expertise in First Amendment jurisprudence will lead the Court to review those briefs.
4. Use social science data to support your arguments.
Often, although not always, the petitioner’s or respondent’s brief will contain legal and policy arguments that focus on the facts of the case, the record below, and the relevant precedent. Importantly, however, these briefs may not include social science data, which is valuable because it provides a factual basis (beyond the record below) for specific legal arguments and underscores the real-world impact of the Court’s decision. A majority of former Supreme Court clerks confirm the value of social science data:
Sixty-eight of the seventy clerks interviewed were asked whether they were inclined to give more or less consideration to an amicus brief containing social science data. Approximately 54% of the clerks claimed that they would be more inclined to give an amicus brief presenting social science data closer consideration.
For example, in Riley v. California, which addressed the constitutionality of cellular telephone searches incident to arrest, one of the amicus briefs contained data showing that over 65% of the population used cellular telephones on a daily basis, including when operating a motor vehicle. By providing this information, the brief highlighted the fact that, if the Court permitted cell phone searches incident to arrest, its decision would impact the Fourth Amendment rights of millions of American citizens. This argument may have contributed to the Court’s decision, which by a vote of 9-0 (with one concurrence), held that such searches violated the Fourth Amendment. When citing social science data, however, be sure that the data is thoroughly documented and supported by relevant studies.
5. Focus on specialized areas of the law.
Amicus briefs are particularly helpful in cases where the legal issues involve highly technical or complex areas of the law. Indeed, former Supreme Court clerks report that “amicus briefs were most helpful in cases involving highly technical and specialized areas of law, as well as complex statutory and regulatory cases.”
Remember that the Justices, although brilliant legal scholars, are not necessarily experts in tax, patent, or copyright law. As such, where a case involves a highly technical area of the law, an amicus brief that assists the Court in understanding the underlying factual issues will be very valuable.
6. Remember that your goal is to assist the Court in reaching a fair decision.
Amicus briefs should differ in tone and approach from merits briefs. Specifically, you should objectively and fairly assess the arguments of the parties, and provide the Court with a workable legal rule that effectively balances the competing legal arguments. In so doing, you will demonstrate to the Court that you have considered the factual, legal, and policy issues in an unbiased manner and arrived at a reasoned conclusion.
7. Ensure that your writing is of the highest quality.
An amicus brief must be well-written and effectively organized. If your brief is poorly written, you can be sure that it will detract from the credibility of your arguments and rarely, if ever, receive the Court’s attention.
Thus, make sure that your writing is concise. Avoid including extraneous or irrelevant facts, unnecessary repetition, or over-the-top language. Address counterarguments and explain why they should not affect the outcome you support. Consider the implications of your argument (and proposed legal rule) on future cases. Explain why your argument is consistent with precedent and produces an equitable result. Adopt a professional tone and never attack the lower courts or the parties. And always follow the Court’s rules regarding the filing of amicus briefs.
Ultimately, excellent amicus briefs can provide valuable assistance to the Court and contribute to principled developments in the law. To do so, they must be well-written and thoroughly reasoned, provide an original perspective, and advocate for a workable legal rule that balances legal and practical considerations.
 Lynch, K. (2004). Best Friends? Supreme Court Clerks on Effective Amicus Curiae Briefs. 20 J. L. & Politics 33 (emphasis added).
Tuesday, October 29, 2019
No offense to this blog’s readers, but appellate advocates in general are a narcissistic bunch. We like to think of ourselves as the drivers of legal change in our system. We assume that the arguments we present before appellate courts are the impetus for new opinions that will have far-reaching practical effects in law and society. I feel confident in ascribing this self-important attitude to appellate advocates because I held it dearly when I practiced as an appellate public defender. Nothing could be more meaningful, I assured myself, than a worthy struggle in the arena of ideas that is an appellate courtroom, with the eventual victor illuminating the legal path forward for decades.
When I began wearing an academic hat, I was forced to reexamine my assumptions about the role appellate advocates plays in shaping the law. And that reexamination was sobering. Our judicial system carries a deeply embedded faith in the procedural justice of adversarial litigation—the idea that when parties compete in a fair process for adjudicating disagreements, they will produce the most just results possible. But when I examined both my own experiences as an appellate clerk and the available data on high court adjudication, I was disappointed to realize how often judges themselves, rather than litigants, drive the outcomes in our supposedly adversarial courts. Take the United States Supreme Court, for example. Supreme Court litigants and their attorneys play a diminishing role in actually shaping the direction of the law, while the “umpire” Justices themselves take greater control over the direction of jurisprudence. The Justices have lowered the demands of their discretionary dockets by consistently granting certiorari in fewer than 100 cases per year, while simultaneously increasing the length and originality of their opinions; their written work is both longer and contains less borrowed language from the parties’ briefs than ever before. In those opinions, Justices themselves often participate in a kind of top-down lawmaking. An opinion in a case decided today often ghost-writes the brief the Justice would like to see presented in future appeals, allowing that Justice to shape the law according to their preferences in future case they have transparently invited litigants to file.
Oral arguments are little different. For several decades preceding this term, oral arguments have left less and less space for the advocates themselves to shape opinions. Attorneys in the Supreme Court instead play the role of straight man in conversations dominated by the Justices, who appear disinterested in the responses from the lectern. In a comparison of oral arguments in the 1958–1960 Terms and the 2010–2012 Terms, Barry Sullivan and Megan Canty noted the myriad ways in which Justices have come to dominate the direction of oral argument over the last half-century, including an increase in the ratio of Justice-spoken words to advocate-spoken words, a near doubling of the average number of words spoken by the Justices per oral argument, and far shorter opening monologues by counsel.
It was thus tempting to celebrate the Supreme Court’s recently-announced rule permitting the advocates approximately two minutes of uninterrupted monologue at the start of oral arguments. Perhaps this would mark a sea-change for appellate advocacy, revitalizing the role of advocates in Supreme Court litigation. Yet there is reason for hearty skepticism. Justices have long taken a guiding role in the direction of the law through use of the discretionary docket; invitations for specific arguments in future appeals; and techniques to slowly undermine, or even stealthily overrule, the reasoning in precedent cases. The two-minute rule will not cabin any of those techniques that permit the Justices, rather than the litigants, to drive the appellate litigation bus.
One well-worn trope holds that cases are seldom won at oral argument, but can readily be lost if one is insufficiently prepared to defend their brief’s arguments against a barrage of troubling hypotheticals and slippery slopes. If anything, the new rule only erodes that trope at the very extreme margins. Advocates may have slightly greater opportunity, in increments usually measured by a kitchen timer, to shape the direction of the law in their presentation to high courts. But this offers little salve when the hypotheticals come cascading down, with little interruption for actual answers, during the bulk of the argument. For appellate advocacy to meaningfully change, and for advocates to play a more determinative role in shaping the law, the justices themselves must approach their job with greater humility, aspiring to resolve the controversies actually presented rather than those they have hoped to see and invited to come before them. Without that change in attitude and approach, the two-minute rule may be little more than a procedural fig-leaf from a court that has drifted further and further away from the judicial system’s adversarial ideals.
This is all not to say that appellate advocacy has lost its value in today’s world. Preparing for an appeal remains one of the most demanding, rewarding, and fruitful exercises any attorney or law student can undertake. Nothing helps an attorney refine their legal arguments more than planning for the crucible of hypotheticals they might face from a high court. And the history of our nation’s highest courts still suggests that some advocates, through either sheer intellectual brilliance or perfectly-timed moments of inspiration, play a guiding role in shaping the direction of the law. But a clear-eyed evaluation of the appellate advocacy process suggests that Justices are the real drivers of case outcomes. Of course, appellate attorneys must still ensure that their clients receive vociferous representation and a prepared, skilled advocate at the podium. But that podium’s power is limited, and it is not often the driver’s seat for appellate litigation.
 Michael Gentithes, Check The Invitation: The Trouble with Appeals Invited by Supreme Court Justices, 82 Mo. L. Rev. 339 (2017).
 See, e.g., Ryan C. Black & James F. Spriggs II, An Empirical Analysis of the Length of U.S. Supreme Court Opinions, 45 Hous. L. Rev. 621, 630, 634–35 (2008); Adam Feldman, A Brief Assessment of Supreme Court Opinion Language, 1946–2013, 86 Miss. L.J. 105, 137 (2017).
 See Michael Gentithes, Check The Invitation: The Trouble with Appeals Invited by Supreme Court Justices, 82 Mo. L. Rev. 339, 341-43 (2017).
 Barry Sullivan & Megan Canty, Interruptions in Search of a Purpose: Oral Argument in the Supreme Court, October Terms 1958–60 and 2010–12, 2015 UTAH L. REV. 1005, 1042.
 See Barry Friedman, The Wages of Stealth Overruling (with Particular Attention to Miranda v. Arizona), 99 Geo. L.J. 1 (2010).
October 29, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, October 28, 2019
Arguing before an appellate court, particularly for recent graduates or those with limited oral argument experience, can be daunting. Below are ten tips that will enhance the persuasive force of your argument, strengthen your oral argument skills, and maximize your chances for success.
1. Have an outstanding introduction
When preparing for oral argument, be sure to prepare a concise and persuasive statement (no longer than two minutes in length) in which you set forth the most favorable precedent, facts, and arguments that support the remedy you are seeking. The reason is that the judges will likely begin to ask you questions shortly after you begin your argument. Thus, it is critical to ensure that you begin with a powerful introduction and emphasize the strongest aspects of your argument before the questions begin.
2. Anticipate questions that the court will ask – and prepare effective responses
When arguing before an appellate court, the majority of your time will likely be spent responding to the judges’ questions. And you can be sure that the judges will focus on the weakest aspects of your case. Thus, when practicing for oral argument, it is critical for you to identify and address unfavorable facts and precedent. In so doing, your goal should be to convince the judges that the presence of unfavorable law or facts should not affect the remedy you are seeking.
3. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
In the weeks (or months) before an oral argument, you should prepare extensively. Specifically, you should be able to discuss the record below, the relevant facts, and the governing precedent, and address relevant counterarguments without referring to any notes. Indeed, your command of the facts and law will enhance your credibility and enable you to deliver a compelling argument.
4. Concede weaknesses in your argument and acknowledge unfavorable facts
In almost any case, there will be weaknesses in your argument. For example, there may be facts or precedents that are not favorable to your position. When arguing before an appellate court, do not be afraid to acknowledge these weaknesses. Doing so will enhance your credibility with the court. For this reason, you should be prepared to explain why unfavorable facts or precedents should not affect the remedy you are seeking. For example, if you are confronted with unfavorable precedent, be prepared to explain why such precedent is distinguishable or would lead to an unjust result.
5. Be respectful to the court and your adversary
This should go without saying, but at all times you must be respectful to the appellate court, the lower court, and your adversary. Thus, be sure not to interrupt the judges when you are asked questions. Do not insult or attack the lower court or your adversary. Always speak in a measured and respectful tone, making sure not to use over-the-top language or express unnecessary emotion. Failing to maintain professionalism will detract from your credibility and reduce the likelihood that you will succeed.
6. Consider the impact of a ruling in your favor on future cases
Understand that, when an appellate court is deciding your case, the court is also considering how a ruling in your favor will affect future cases. For example, if the court adopts your proposed rule, will it lead to an unjustifiable expansion of the law or have unforeseen consequences that the court would not countenance? Thus, when preparing for oral argument, be sure to consider the policy implications of a ruling in your favor and be prepared to address how such a ruling will impact future cases in different contexts.
7. Respond to the judges’ questions directly
Excellent advocates never attempt to evade a judge’s question. If you do so, the court will likely get frustrated and view the strength of your argument less favorably. Accordingly, be sure to answer every question directly by relying on the relevant facts and law. And remember that the judges’ questions are a window into how the judges are considering the merits of your case, and thus an opportunity to convince the judges that their concerns are best addressed by ruling in your favor.
8. Speak slowly and be aware of your non-verbal actions
It is natural and entirely normal to experience anxiety before an oral argument. Knowing this, be particularly mindful of the manner in which you deliver your argument. For example, do not speak too quickly. Instead, gather your thoughts and speak in a conversational, respectful tone. And be sure not to fidget or move unnecessarily at the lectern. Keep your composure and your focus on the facts and law. After all, your non-verbal actions can often be as revealing as your verbal communications.
9. Be aware of the time – and practice under timed conditions
During most oral arguments, you will have up to thirty minutes (and sometimes less) to present your argument. You should practice under timed conditions to ensure that you can provide the court with the strongest and most relevant points supporting a ruling in your favor. In so doing, you should prepare a concise list of your most important arguments and make sure that, no matter how intense the questioning, you communicate these points either at the beginning or end of oral argument.
10. Prepare an excellent closing
Be sure that your closing statement is as powerful as your opening statement. Regardless of the questions that you are asked, make sure that you end your argument by providing the court with the strongest argument(s) that support the remedy you seek. Indeed, just as you want to create an excellent first impression at the beginning of an oral argument, you also want to provide the court with a powerful ending that offers compelling reasons to rule in your favor.
Extra tip: Have fun and do your best. You have a unique opportunity to obtain a favorable ruling on behalf of your client and effectuate a positive change in the law. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Do your best and relish the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in law.
Tuesday, October 22, 2019
A couple of weeks ago Kent Streseman posted a blog about the Supreme Court's new "two minute rule," generally allowing the first two minutes of oral argument to proceed without questioning, and how it had been applied in the first couple of oral arguments after its introduction. As he noted, the writers of this blog are watching with interest to see how it is applied and what, if any, difference it makes in oral argument.
Of course, we all have our opinions as to the value of this time and how it should be used. As I ponder the best use, a couple of theories are bouncing around in my head that suggest possible strategies.
First, there is the narrative paradigm. Walter Fisher, a communications theorist, suggested this paradigm in the 70s, and it has continued to have influence since then. Basically, Fisher suggested that the objective notions of rhetoric may be less important than the subjective importance of the story being told to the listener. So long as the story is internally coherent and truthful to the listener's own notions, then the listener will have "good reasons" to believe the story, whether those reasons are objectively true or not.
As legal practitioners, we tend to shy away from the narrative paradigm. Instead, we tend to couch our "storytelling" in terms of Aristotle's pathos - one of his triad of support for a good argument that involves the appeal to our audience's emotion. But the narrative paradigm goes deeper than this. It suggests that there are "truthy" arguments that appeal to us as storytellers that are more influential than just an appeal to either logic or emotion.
The second theory in some ways justifies Fisher's paradigm with neuroscience. As we have written before on this blog, neuroscience supports the ideal that there is "fast" and "slow" thinking processes at work in all of us. The "fast" processes rely on surface thinking that is informed by often unconscious preconceptions, stereotypes, and biases. It takes little thought to avoid the snarling dog, drive a well-known route, or even read the average blog. Unfortunately, it also takes little thought to dismiss the arguments made by someone against whom the judge has an implicit bias, or rule in a way that is consistent with prior rulings, even though circumstances may have changed. It is important, then, to engage the "slow," deliberate thinking of a panel by exposing implicit bias where necessary.
These two concepts - the importance of storytelling and the dangers of implicit bias - suggest different approaches in different cases. It may be important in your case to unveil potential implicit bias and deal with it explicitly at the start in order to quickly engage deliberative thinking. It may also be important in your case to reframe the story that underlies the facts so that the panel does not lose track of the human story that underlies the legal issue. The two minute rule gives you time to address these issues when they arise.
There are many other strategic uses of the two minute rule. Whatever your thought process, just remember that this time is valuable, and should be used more deliberately than just a time set-aside for a statement of theme and introduction of a roadmap.
(Image credit: Honore Daumier, "He defends the widows and orphans, unless he is attacking widows and orphans," 1846 lithograph from the series "Le Gens de Justice.")
Saturday, October 5, 2019
Recently, in a first-year writing class covering hierarchy of authority and our U.S. Court system, my students and I discussed membership in the bars of the United States Supreme Court and Circuit Courts of Appeals. The 1Ls did not know these courts have separate bars and admissions, and asked how and why practitioners might join. I shared the process for the Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit (we’re in California) with them, and let them know they might even participate in a December group swearing-in at a Circuit Court one day. Many students said they would see these memberships as prestigious and impressive.
The class discussion led me to survey my local appellate pals informally. While a few were jaded about the value of listing these bar admissions in their firm bios or on resumes, many of our appellate community practitioners use memberships in these bars as indicia of appellate experience, especially if they do not have a state appellate specialization to list. A search of Twitter reveals attorneys bragging about their federal licenses, and one friend told me she added all of her federal bar admissions to her LinkedIn profile when she let her state appellate specialization expire. Another colleague told me partners asked about these admissions when he wanted to move from litigation to an appellate department at a large law firm. While this is anecdotal evidence, it supports the value in highlighting any federal bar memberships, especially appellate court bar memberships.
Therefore, the next time you update a professional profile, you should consider adding any federal bar admissions you have. In fact, one law school career development office expressly suggests doing so. https://pennstatelaw.psu.edu/career-planning-and-development/alumni-career-services/adding-bar-admission-your-resume.
Curious about applying to a federal bar? Check out the court’s website. If you do not have an account for online filing, you will need one to practice at the Circuit Court (and sometimes you need to be a member first to create these accounts), so learn about PACER and CM/ECF, and start your registration process. Most of the Circuits still require anyone not newly admitted to a state bar to have either a sponsor or a clerk certification, and to also obtain a certificate of good standing from their state bar. E.g., https://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/content/atty_instructions.php; http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/clerk/attorneys/admission_instructions.html. Moreover, while the forms are now available online through PACER, the $220-230 fee required by the courts is not de minimis. These are even more reasons to brag about your membership once you join. And, if you want the details for each federal court, author and general counsel John Okray has written an entire book on admission to the various federal district and circuit courts, U.S. Federal Courts: Attorney Admission Requirements: 2011 Edition (2nd Revised Ed. Lawyerup Press 2010).
Please feel free to comment about the memberships you list on your profiles and bios. I’ll be sure to share comments with my students. Thanks!
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Teaching legal writing to first year law students can be humbling. Though the students are unfailingly enthusiastic and extremely trusting of my alleged expertise, occasionally an innocent question exposes just how little I really know about the law. One discussion that humbled me recently concerned the weight of authority. The concepts seem straightforward enough, and once students begin researching independently, they become keenly aware of the need to sort the seemingly infinite cases they can find by the weight they will carry for a hypothetical judge. But my students’ eyebrows rose when they learned that some court decisions, though readily available in a variety of online fora, are “unpublished,” and thus cannot be relied upon by advocates in future cases. And sadly, a legal writing professor assuring them “that’s just the way it is” provided cold comfort for 1Ls. So I wanted to take some time to think through just what does, or does not, justify keeping some decisions “unpublished” in the Google era.
Appellate Courts have long relied upon unpublished decisions in a significant number of cases, with estimates suggesting that over 80% of federal appellate court decisions are unpublished. Unpublished decisions are designed to serve several straightforward goals. First, limiting the number of published opinions should simplify the legal research process for litigants; the fewer potentially relevant cases lawyers must sift through, the easier (and cheaper) litigation becomes. Second, limiting the number of published opinions should render appellate court judging more efficient. Judges can focus their energy on perfecting their opinions in the most complex cases on their dockets, while clerks can compose most of the details in the majority of unpublished decisions of the court.
But these justifications are less compelling today, when nearly every document produced in appellate courts is readily available online. Even if litigators follow the letter of local rules against citation of unpublished decisions, they will often refer to the reasoning present in an unpublished decision to buttress their arguments. They may even be tempted to directly quote from an unpublished decision, then simply drop a footnote to acknowledge that the decision has no precedential value. The proliferation of unpublished decisions thus seems not to simplify the research process for litigants. Both parties feel obligated to sift through unpublished authorities to avoid yielding some advantage to their opponent. The distinction between published and unpublished decisions can even make the litigation process more complex. It forces litigants to first scour traditional and non-traditional resources to obtain digital copies of the supposedly “unpublished” decisions raising similar issues, then to assess the degree to which they should rely upon those decisions in their briefs. The reliance question is especially troublesome in appellate courts where the parties will not learn which panel of judges will hear the case, and thus cannot assess the unique views of the panel about arguments based upon unpublished decisions until well after the written briefs have been filed.
Furthermore, the promised efficiency gains for appellate court judges seem far-fetched in the digital era. Judges are fully aware that unpublished decisions are just as readily available for the legal community to review, and criticize, as published ones. Judges must therefore exercise the same care in crafting those decisions as published opinions. Furthermore, the choice to qualify a decision as unpublished often signals the author’s lack of confidence in the outcome. It seemingly invites higher courts to closely examine, and perhaps overrule, those decisions.
Perhaps all is not lost, though, for unpublished decisions if the rules that set out their use are modified to coincide with a different goal: streamlining litigation where some issues are so clear that no written decision is required. For example, perhaps appellate court rules could allow judges to enter a partial summary remand order addressing specific, clear errors, then retain jurisdiction in case any appellate issues remain viable following the remand. This would allow the court to explain that some issues are obvious enough to be addressed without a published decision, but retain jurisdiction to address more complex issues that may remain. Courts could also avoid issuing even an unpublished decision where the only issue raised is simple. Perhaps where error is clear, a per curiam order remanding without opinion at all is appropriate, both to quickly resolve the litigation and to avoid creating quasi-precedent that future litigants must research. Courts would need to avoid over-reliance on that method so that the reasons for their decisions are consistently publicized to litigants and the public, but the promise of streamlined litigation in many cases may be worth the risk.
In lieu of those dramatic shifts, appellate courts could adopt a more subtle change to the rules for citing unpublished decisions. Appellate courts could expressly permit occasional citations to an unpublished decision, such as in cases where “no published opinion would serve as well to illustrate the argument of the parties.” Such a rule admittedly introduces a difficult standard for litigants and courts. But perhaps such candid acknowledgement that every decision is “published” in the Google era is worthwhile.
 “From 2000 to 2008, more than 81% of all opinions issued by the federal appellate courts were unpublished.” Aaron S. Bayer, Unpublished Appellate Opinions Are Still Commonplace, The National Law Journal, Aug. 24, 2009 (citing Judicial Business of the United States Courts: Annual Report of the Director, tbl. S3 (2000-2008)).
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
Amicus briefs are wonderful tools, and fun to draft. Freed from many of the rule restrictions imposed on a regular party brief, an amicus writer can soar rhetorically over the fray and make "big picture" observations of considerable help to the court. They can be full of satire. They can tell true stories. They can even be cartoons.
That freedom, however, can be abused. And when it is, the friend of the court can become an enemy. To be a friend to the court, keep these three rules in mind.
1. Amicus briefs should add something new and valuable to the case.
First, amicus briefs are not an opportunity to ghost-write around briefing limitations. As counsel for a party to an appeal, I have been asked to not only solicit amicus briefs, but to ghost write them for friends of the court who will then put their name on them. Resist that urge.
“A true amicus curiae is without interest in the litigation matter. An amicus curiae is a ‘bystander’ whose mission is to aid the court, to act only for the personal benefit of the court.” See Burger v. Burger, 156 Tex. 584, 298 S.W.2d 119, 120 (1957). In some courts, the amicus must certify that they are not being paid or supported by a party, or disclose all sources of funding for the brief. Thus, Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 29 requires disclosure of all sources of funding and any input on the writing process by a party's counsel. Supreme Court Rule 37 is similar. Some states have much looser rules, while others mirror the federal system. But everyone should be mindful of Judge Posner's position that most parties use amicus to simply add to their page length, and as such, most amicus briefs should be ignored because they do not offer anything of value to the court that is not already in the party's briefs. See Voices for Choices v. Ill. Bell Tel. Co., 339 F.3d 542, 544 (7th Cir. 2003).
A true amicus recognizes this rule and presents something new and valuable to the court. The parties recognize this and solicit briefs that will add value to the argument without ghost writing them. Ignoring the rule likely means your amicus will likewise be ignored, or even rejected.
2. Amicus briefs should not be used for personal attacks.
Second, amicus briefs should not be used for personal attacks on either the litigants or the court. Recently, members of the U.S. Senate filed an amicus brief in a Supreme Court case involving the Second Amendment. Authored by a member of the Senate as "Counsel of Record," the brief repeatedly and selectively quotes Justice Roberts, cites to public polls and numerous websites more than cases, hints at a dark money conspiracy between the NRA, the Federalist Society, and the Court, and concludes with a thinly-veiled threat:
Today, fifty-five percent of Americans believe the Supreme Court is “mainly motivated by politics”(up five percent from last year); fifty-nine percent believe the Court is “too influenced by politics”; and a majority now believes the “Supreme Court should be restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics.” Quinnipiac Poll, supra note 2.To have the public believe that the Court’s pattern of outcomes is the stuff of chance (or “the requirements of the law,” Obergefell, 135 S. Ct. at 2612 (Roberts, C.J., dissenting)) is to treat the “intelligent man on the street,” Gill v. Whitford, No. 16-1161, Oral Arg. Tr. at 37:18-38:11 (Oct. 3, 2017), as a fool.
The Supreme Court is not well. And the people know it. Perhaps the Court can heal itself before the public demands it be “restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics.”Particularly on the urgent issue of gun control, a nation desperately needs it to heal.
While the brief garnered plenty of attention and, thus, likely accomplished exactly what it set out to do, it was harmful in a way few people noted. Judges certainly are not above criticism. But the judiciary is put in a difficult position when it is criticized in its own forum. If it censors the criticism, it loses status. It also has limitations on its ability to respond. Therefore, as Learned Hand opined, "Let [judges] be severely brought to book, when they go wrong, but by those who will take the trouble to understand."
Attorneys (and the authoring Senator was an attorney) in particular should be cautious in their critiques of the courts and counsel, because they have an obligation to uphold the legal system. This may, at times, require "speaking truth to power," and many commentators think this is exactly what the amicus did. But it should not be done in a way that diminishes that power of the courts overall, or that recklessly impugns the integrity of our highest court. See Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.2. And the brief here, weaponized as it was to pointedly attack the court at the top of our legal system, arguably did just that.
Most of us, of course, are not U.S. Senators with a political point to make. If we want to write briefs that will be read and be persuasive, we need to attack the arguments, not the advocates or the members of the court.
3. Amicus briefs should not inject extrajudicial facts or junk science.
Finally, amicus briefs should not try to bring in facts not in the record, and in particular, should not introduce research that is not carefully vetted to ensure its accuracy. Amicus briefs that rely on social research data are popular, and are particularly susceptible to being weaponized when they distort that data. See Michael Rustad & Thomas Koenig,The Supreme Court and Junk Social Science: Selective Distortion in Amicus Briefs, 72 N.C. L. Rev. 91(1993). As the authors of this paper note, amicus briefs purporting to present statistical fact to the court create fiction, instead, when they fail to follow the proper methodologies or permit analytical gaps that would have been contested and weeded-out if presented at trial. Without a formal process for determining the merit of such statistical analysis when it is presented on appeal, an amicus who files such a brief must be extremely cautious that they do so appropriately.
Amicus briefs that avoid these three traps can truly be helpful to the Court. They can be extremely inventive. But they should stay friendly to the court, if not the court's rulings.
Monday, September 9, 2019
While many lawyers might think that being a judge would be an ideal job, we sometimes forget that judges generally* don't get to pick their cases. So, once a judge is assigned a case, he is stuck with it (unless, of course, he can get rid of it under some justiciability doctrine).
It turns out, however, that there is another way to get rid of a case, at least according to the Court of Appeal for Ontario, Canada. A three justice panel of the court heard an appeal in a real estate matter. According to a news story, the case concerned failed real estate investments. The plaintiff "was to provide second mortgage financing for real estate units, but they were never 'renovated, rented or sold, as anticipated,' and the mortgages went into default." The plaintiff "was trying to recover amounts that were due under second mortgages and stand-alone guarantee agreements signed by individual defendants." At issue were a choice of law and statute of limitations questions.
The appellate court issued its opinion on May 27, 2019. However, one of the justices who signed on to the opinion had not heard the case. Apparently, according to a later opinion, "One of the members of the panel that heard the appeal . . . was not provided with either the draft judgment for review or the final judgment for signature. The judgment was signed, in error, by another justice who was not a member of the panel that heard the appeal."
After being made aware of the problem and submitting briefs on the matter, one of the parties suggested that the omitted justice just review the opinion and either "assent to or dissent from" it. The court, however, disagreed. It said "The panel of judges that rendered judgment was not the same panel that heard the appeal. . . . The decision-making process has been compromised and this panel cannot render a judgment." The panel concluded that "the appeal must be re-heard by a differently constituted panel of the court."
Having clerked for an appellate court, albeit an American one, I have no idea how this could happen. The news story that I saw on the case didn't shed any light on the cause of the error either. It quotes a senior legal officer for the court who said that there were "several procedures in place to prevent such mistakes" and who called the error "rare." I would hope it would be rare! I would be curious to know how much the court's mistake has cost the parties in additional legal fees--not only did they have to submit additional briefs, the case now has to be reargued.
Fortunately for the parties, a new panel will hear the case on the expedited schedule. Hopefully they will get their issues resolved soon.
*Courts with discretionary review, like the U.S. Supreme Court, certainly do have control over their dockets.
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
I often talk to my writing and appellate advocacy students about their audience, the members of the court from which they are seeking relief. I have spent most of my career working for appellate courts and, so, having been the audience, I like to educate my students about the reader’s perspective. It is hard sometimes to grasp who your audience is, or how much attention the reader pays to legal motions, memoranda, and briefs. I confess that when I was a student I used to romanticize about my reader sitting in an overstuffed, leather chair in a dimly lit room slowly perusing briefs while sipping cognac. It never occurred to me that the sheer volume of work makes that picture a ridiculous fantasy.
Let’s talk about numbers. The United States Supreme Court website tells us that over 7,000 cases are filed in the Court each term, and that, of that number, about 80 receive plenary review, with another 100 disposed of without plenary review. The Court writes thousands of pages a term, if you count all the opinions and orders. See https://www.supremecourt.gov/about/courtatwork.aspx (last visited 7/23/2019). Imagine that! Even shared amongst all of the Justices, law clerks, clerks, and staff attorneys, the volume of written work in a term far exceed what most people will produce in a lifetime.
These numbers are just staggering. Imagine having to read just a fraction of the briefs and other legal documents filed in these cases. There is nothing romantic about it. But it is awe-inspiring to consider the dedication and sacrifice involved in devoting so much of time into the cares of the litigants and the future course of this country. The same can be said about every appellate court, where incoming cases can range from a few hundred in smaller states to more than 10,000 in the largest states each year.
Keeping the sheer volume of cases in mind, over the next few weeks I will explore what we can do as appellate advocates to ease the burden.
Saturday, April 20, 2019
On July 1, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States will impose a new, shorter word limit for principal briefs. The change affects Supreme Court Rule 33.1(g), decreasing the word limit for principal merits briefs from 15,000 to 13,000. The change brings the Court in line with the federal Courts of Appeal. Since December 1, 2016, the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure have allotted only 13,000 words for opening and response briefs.
The Court rejected one of the more controversial proposed rules. That proposal would have limited reply briefs to 4,500 words. Even so, the Court did shorten the time for filing a reply brief. Previously, merits replies were due (1) 30 days after the respondent filed its merits response or (2) no later than 2 p.m. on the date seven days before the case was scheduled for argument, whichever was earlier. The amended rule keeps the 30-day window but pushes the seven-days-before-argument deadline to 10.
So why did the Court adopt these changes? I don't claim to know the answer, but I expect that it has something to do with the fact that most briefs are simply too long. Anecdotally, I once heard an appellate judge comment that every appeal really has one issue, maybe two. It's clear that some lawyers—yours truly included—forget that sometimes.
So how can you come in under these shorter word limits? That's simple—better writing. Here are some things to do, and to avoid, to bring your brief under the word limit.
- Do use fewer words, not more: Legal writers often are guilty of using phrases like "pursuant to," "prior to," or "on or about." Don't. Instead of these wordy phrases, try "under," "before," and "on." This seems like a no-brainer, but I've encountered many lawyers that refuse to give these anachronisms up. As an aside, I've also encountered several that use "pursuant to" incorrectly. Things don't happen "pursuant to" anyone's recollection. If you can't replace the phrase "pursuant to" with the word "under," you should re-write.
- Do run a search for the word "of." I never noticed it, but many phrases with the word "of" can be rewritten to eliminate one, often two words. Consider the common phrases "the issue of" or "the question of." You're likely able to pull those out without doing violence to your brief. Also, if you're using an "of" phrase, there's also a chance you could use a possessive.
- Do run a search for "ly." You're hopefully not going to find very many adverbs. But if you do, take them out unless they're necessary. Consider spending some time with a thesaurus; if you're using a lot of adverbs, perhaps you'd be better served by using stronger verbs.
- Do not use the words "plaintiff," "appellant," or other, similar procedural phrases to describe any party. Briefing an appeal is about telling a story. It's your job to tell the court the whole story of the case in the limited (13,000!) words that you have. Even though replacing your client's four-word name would save space, resist the urge. I promise, what you're gaining in space, you're giving up in clarity.
- Do not use precise dates, unless you absolutely need it. The Court doesn't need to know that something happened on April 21, 2019, unless multiple events happened in April 2019. If you've got to describe a temporal relationship, try words like "later" or "before." Otherwise, just save the words and use the month or month and year.
These aren't all the ways to save space. But writing shorter, more coherent briefs is a mindset. You have to start somewhere.
Saturday, April 13, 2019
It is quiet and dark. The theater is hushed. James Bond skirts along the edge of a building as his enemy takes aim. Here in the audience, heart rates increase and palms sweat. I know this to be true because instead of enjoying the movie myself, I am measuring the brain activity of a dozen viewers. For me, excitement has a different source: I am watching a neural ballet in which a story line changes the activity of people’s brains.
That's from Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies. Recently, scientists strapped brain-scanning and other sensors to a group of test subjects and had them watch a Bond movie. The researchers wanted to see how people reacted physically and neurologically to a good story.
"When James Bond found himself in stressful situations--like hanging from a cliff or fighting a bad guy--the audience’s pulses raced. They sweated. Their attention focused." In other words, the subjects connected with the hero on a physiological level, experiencing what Bond was experiencing. And something else: the participant's brains synthesized a neurochemical called oxytocin.
Oxytocin's influential power on our minds is well-documented. And stories trigger it.
Take another study showing that when we read a story, the neural activity in our brain increases fivefold. Neuroscientists have a saying: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This increased activity, no doubt, makes it much more likely that readers will remember a story over some other random information.
Research shows that the mere act of reading a story changes how we think. In a 2011 study, participants read stories with strangers. The results? Storytelling, the researchers concluded, “fostered empathy, compassion, [and] tolerance.” Reading a cohesive story (of any kind) affects us. It makes information more palatable and more memorable. This is all piled on top of the long-standing cognitive science research showing that nearly all of our thinking is done by constructing story-like schemas and categories in our minds.
In short: research proves that storytelling engages readers, it burns information into their memories, and it forges the sort of close bonds that you need to persuade them. If anything, these powers are most important for lawyers. We legal writers are desperate to engage our readers--and to get them to care--amid the constant legal noise. Storytelling can cut through that noise and touch our readers on deep levels.
Legal storytelling is a field and art to itself, but I thought I would offer some core storytelling tools that you can easily incorporate into your legal writing.
1. Start with a movie-trailer paragraph.
Try taking a paragraph or two at the outset of your factual story to spool up a preview of the best scenes. If your fact section is the movie then this initial section is your movie-trailer. You will not only excite and engage your readers, but you'll lay out the basic storyline so they can better sort the details as they go (an important cognitive science tool).
The two tricks here are to (1) roadmap the basic storyline and theme ("this is a corporate bullying case") and to play a highlight reel of some of your best material to prime readers and get their emotions in the right place. I've seen good movie-trailers take up a few paragraphs or a few sentences. Take this one from a recent SCOTUS case--it doesn't get more simple or persuasive than this:
Justice Kagan is a fan of the movie trailer. Here she sets up the story in the Sherman case last term:
The thrust of the complaint is that plaintiff has worked at the defendant’s store for several years and repeatedly complained about sexual harassment. For example, he complained that his supervisor allegedly made comments about his ‘great stature.’ Eventually, the defendant acted, but by then, plaintiff alleged he had already been harassed so much that he quit.
Here's an example of a lawyer also adding some helpful roadmap to his trailer:
Three periods in plaintiff’s employment are relevant here. First, plaintiff offers allegations about when he was interviewed and how the defendant made promises to him then, like that he would be a foreman within six months. Second, plaintiff alleges that over the next six months, his job turned out to be a “glorified secretary…”
2. Uncover your familiar plot and highlight it.
We all know the good storylines: the underdog who defeats the bully, rags to riches, the do-gooder who is underestimated by everyone in town. We are hardwired to be moved by these storylines. The good news is that you can construct an emotional storyline out of just about any situation, if you look hard enough. Once you've distilled down your basic plot so that you can relate it in a sentence or two--highlight it at the outset of your story and throughout your brief.
Supreme Court high-flyer (and one of my favorite legal writers) Deepak Gupta gets the value of building a simple and emotional storyline at the outset. With these couple paragraphs, Gupta injects his factual theme, storyline, and the punchiest snippets of his factual story. In short, the big bad credit card companies are pulling the wool over innocent consumers' eyes--to the tune of billions:
Here's another example. This time, it's a story of vulture debt buyers looking to prey on the weak:
3. Deftly weave emotional facts into the story (even when they are not strictly relevant).
Legal readers hate reading facts that are obviously not relevant to the legal questions they are wrangling with. But if you insert those same facts into a cohesive story about the facts that do matter--your readers will never get wise. For example, Justice Kagan mentions in this snippet below how much the plaintiff spent on fees, even though this fact really had nothing to do with the legal questions presented to the court. But because this fact was weaved into the story about the background that was relevant--you'd never know:
We legal writers are often too specific about things that don’t matter. The problem is that when you give your readers a bunch of specific details without purpose, they get confused. They try to remember everything, not knowing what they'll need for the legal analysis later.
So cut dates, amounts, names, and any other details that won't help you win on the merits. Look how this federal district judge avoids inundating the reader with dates, page numbers, and needless details that other lawyers and judges love to squeeze in:
Late last year attorney Denton Jackson filed a chapter 13 bankruptcy case  for debtor Sarah O’Neill. Shortly after filing the case, Jackson filed a form fee application, Form No. 23. In the portion of the application entitled “Use of Model Retention Agreement,” Jackson checked the box indicating: “The attorney and the debtor(s) have entered into the Court’s Model Retention Agreement.” Some months later, chapter 13 trustee Thomas Lanner objected to Jackson’s application because the [Model Retention Agreement] between Jackson and the debtor . . . attached an “addendum” that prescribed fees in addition to the flat fee to which Jackson was entitled.
5. Try to tell a complete, cohesive story about any important factual events.
Make sure to tell a complete story--beginning, middle, and end--for any event that matters. Readers get skeptical when there are obvious plot holes. So answer natural narrative questions readers will likely have. Consider telling the story in a familiar arc:
setting > characters > complication/conflict > resolution (how they got to court)
This is a familiar and easy to understand format for readers (as a preview for later--you can use this same structure when telling stories about the rules, too).
Some other story elements to keep in mind:
- Consider whose perspective might be the best to follow as you deliver the facts. The defendant? The plaintiff? Some third party?
- Focus on people or entities when possible. Frame the story as actions they took out leading to the issues or dispute.
- Provide your reader with helpful context to set up those important factual events. How did the plaintiff and defendant come to meet? Why were they where they were that night? You don’t want to lose your reader in irrelevant details, but if some factual events are critical, it will be much easier for your reader if you set the scene first.
Here's some nice scene-setting about why there are so few debt-buying firms, which sets up the critical factual events in the case:
Here's a great example of a lawyer telling the whole story and paying attention to familiar story elements:
Here's another cohesive story. Notice how the lawyer keeps the facts in the perspective of the entities, not abstracts. Note also the editorials about what the entities were thinking at the time:
Defendant Oztark co. launched it’s company last year to help individuals who want to charter a private plane. It filled out its corporate paperwork with the state of Delaware, but it forgot to send in a check to cover the corporate registration fee. Delaware, in turn, sent its request for payments to the wrong address—so Oztark never realized it’s mistake. Oztark then started providing services, not realizing that it was effectively not a legal corporation . . .
Here's an example of some scene setting that lays out how different parties relate to each other. Is it all legally relevant? Probably not. But it sure helps keep the story straight:
6. Share specific details that make a point (rather than telling your reader why they matter).
This is a classic and always important: Use choice details to lead your readers to the emotions and images you want, don't just tell them what matters.
So instead of telling your reader that “plaintiff was severely and permanently injured” share the specific details: “Plaintiff’s hips were both broken.”
But choose specific details with care. Juicy details will build imagery in your reader’s mind, making the story come to life. And if you choose the wrong details you might lose control.
7. Use tools to emphasize the good facts.
Emphasize the best facts by describing them with the best style. Imagery-laden, vibrant, and pithy writing is memorable. And using this sort of writing when talking about the good facts will make them stick.
You can emphasize key facts by placing them in positions of emphasis like the beginning and endings of paragraphs, the beginning or end of sections, and the ending of sentences. You can also emphasize these facts by repeating them subtly, say, in your introduction, in your fact headings, in your movie-trailer section, and in your conclusions.
Another important way to emphasize key facts is to tell a more detailed story about them. The more details and time you spend setting up a factual event, the more it will be emphasized for your reader. Justice Kagan gets it here, as she spends two paragraphs revealing every detail leading up to the critical event of the banner being unfurled:
Respondent Joseph Frederick, a senior, was late to school that day. When he arrived, he joined his friends (all but one of whom were students) across the street from the school to watch the event. Not all the students waited patiently. Some became rambunctious, throwing plastic cola bottles and snowballs and scuffling with their classmates.
Then came the incident we are concerned with here. As the torchbearers and camera crews passed by, Frederick and his friends unfurled a 14–foot banner bearing the phrase: “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS.” The large banner was easily readable by the students on the other side of the street.” - Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (modified)
8. Use the first sentence of fact paragraphs to persuasively frame and prime.
Like I mentioned recently in "The Strength of the Start," first sentences are powerful. Use the first sentences of your fact paragraphs to set up the persuasive pitch for all the facts that come after. Gupta does just that here:
9. Use your own voice and narration whenever possible.
Any good storyteller will tell you that half of this art is in the voice: the power, the pauses, the pitch. For writers, this is tricky, because you must craft a "written voice." One of the big pitfalls here is to let fact quotes drown out your own narration. So consider using some of my prior pointers about quoting here, and keep other people's voices to a minimum. Check out how (yes again) Gupta keeps quotes to a minimum while maintaining his own narrative tone throughout:
Defang unhelpful facts by surrounding them with helpful facts (the "halo"), by placing them in the middle of paragraphs, by not repeating them, and by sharing less detail or spending less time exploring their nuances.
But top lawyers will all agree that you should not ignore the bad facts that the other side is sure to raise. That just makes them that more powerful in the other side's hands. But here is an example of an attorney deftly putting bad facts into context. Instead of saying: "Defendant admits he punched the plaintiff in the face," the lawyer says:
Defendant is a nurse. He has never done anything violent. He was being beaten from three sides and—to save his own life—flailed and made contact with one of the assailants in the face. There were no injuries.
11. Use headings to separate the story's different scenes.
This may be the most helpful fact tool: separate different factual events with headings so that your readers can keep track. Good headings also allow you to help your reader understand what matters from each section.
For example, this lawyer plucks out the key facts about how long it took to file a motion:
A. The plaintiff waited to file the motion until three months after receiving documents.
Here's another Gupta example of headings that preview key facts and help readers keep track of all the different parts of a single, cohesive story:
12. Telling the rules' story.
One of the most powerful stories is a type you might not think about: Rule stories.
Really, every rule is a story. Whether it be a statute, a common law principle, or the reasoning of a court case. Some situation or circumstance gave birth to the rule. The rule grew over time--changed, expanded. Perhaps it matured into a more flexible version of itself, benefiting from the wisdom of experience. Or maybe it became strict and unyielding after too many litigants took advantage of it.
There is a lot of magic to explore here. For one, when you have a critical rule interpretation that may make or break your brief--telling the rule's life story can be the most memorable, engaging, and persuasive tool in your belt. Rule stories just beg to be read.
Most legal writers would introduce a rule like this:
The Free Exercise Clause does not exempt religious persons from laws of general applicability. Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).
Once your reader absorbs your rule's story, it will be hard for them to shake. The other side's surface interpretation of the rule will ring hollow.
Another power of the rule story is that it gives you flexibility. Root around long enough in any rule's past, and you'll find some skeletons. Perhaps a shotty case that caused a twist in the law that never should have been there. Or some assumptions or factual circumstances that suggest an entirely different purpose animated the rule than what you might expect. You can take more liberty when interpreting rules as a storyteller rather than a scrivener.
Joe Regalia is a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law and regularly leads workshops training legal writing and technology. The views he expresses here are solely his own and not intended to be legal advice. Check out his other articles and writing tips here.