Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Saturday, August 7, 2021

How To Make a ‘Bad’ Argument Better -- and Persuasive

In law school or in law practice, many students will hear this statement: “if the law isn’t on your side, argue the facts; if the facts aren’t on your side, argue the law.”

Well, guess what?

Sometimes, neither the law nor the facts support your argument.  

In your career, you will find yourself in the unenviable position of having to make a ‘bad’ argument before a court. To be sure, a ‘bad’ argument is not a frivolous argument. Rather, a ‘bad’ argument is one where the relevant precedent doesn’t support your position. It is one where the facts and equities are unfavorable to your client. In short, a ‘bad’ argument is one where your chances of winning are about as good as O.J. Simpson admitting that he killed Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman.

So, what should you do to make a ‘bad’ argument better? Consider the following hypothetical:

You are representing a congressman – and former professor at a prestigious college – who is suing a newspaper for allegedly defamatory statements that the newspaper made during the congressman’s unsuccessful reelection campaign, where he lost by less than 500 votes. Specifically, four days before the election, the newspaper published an article titled “Congressman receives a grade of ‘F’ from former students.” In that article, the newspaper quoted several negative reviews from the congressman’s former students that were anonymously posted on www.criticizemyprofessor.com. The reviews included statements that the congressman was a “stupid and awful professor,” a “narcissistic jerk who based grades on whether he liked you,” “an insensitive elitist who routinely made statements in class that offended students and created an uncomfortable learning environment,” and “a man who has caused lasting trauma to his students.” When publishing this article, the newspaper contacted the college to inquire about the congressman’s performance, but the college declined to comment. Additionally, the newspaper failed to include numerous reviews from another website – www.praisemyprofesssor.com – where many former students anonymously and unanimously posted excellent reviews of the congressman.

After the election, the newspaper acknowledged that it “could have done better” by including the statements from www.praisemyprofesssor.com but stated that “we had no reason to believe that the statements posted on www.criticizemyprofessor.com were false” and posted them “with full confidence in their truth.” Indeed, there is no evidence to suggest that the comments made on either website are false.

As the attorney representing the congressman, you obviously have an uphill battle.  

Not surprisingly, the trial court recently granted a motion to dismiss in the newspaper’s favor. The court held that under New York Times v. Sullivan, the congressman could only succeed on his defamation claim if he proved that the statements were false and made with actual malice, namely, with knowledge of their [the statements’] falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the statements. Based on the newspaper’s statements, its attempt to contact the congressman’s former employer regarding his performance, and the lack of evidence that the statements were false, the court held that this standard was not met.

The congressman decided to appeal and now you are preparing for oral argument. Given the facts, the actual malice standard, and the lack of evidence of falsity, you have a very ‘bad’ argument.

So, what can you do to make this ‘bad’ argument as persuasive as possible?

1.    Create a nuanced argument that renders governing precedent less controlling

When you are presenting a bad argument, the worst approach is to be reactive. Don’t spend your time trying to explain away or distinguish controlling precedent, or trying to depict facts and evidence in an unjustifiably favorable light. Instead, admit that the law does not support your position. Acknowledge the unfavorable facts. After all, when you have to make a ‘bad’ argument, your credibility is the first and essential step to making a ‘bad’ argument persuasive. You don’t want the court to think that you are asking it to ignore precedent or accept implausible justifications to distinguish that precedent. You don’t want the court to think that you are minimizing or ignoring unfavorable facts.

Instead, develop a nuanced and original argument that renders precedent a little less controlling and the unfavorable facts a little less damaging. In so doing, you will enhance the likelihood of convincing the court that the rule or outcome for which you advocate is novel and neither inconsistent with nor contrary to existing law.

Consider the above example. With respect to the actual malice standard, how would you address the argument that the newspaper’s conduct doesn’t even remotely satisfy this standard?  

Well, you could argue that the court should clarify its interpretation of “reckless disregard” for the truth or falsity of a statement. In so doing, you could argue that providing an incomplete, inaccurate, and thus distorted view of the facts to the public is a “reckless disregard” for the truth because it portrays an individual in a false and potentially defamatory light. By way of analogy, what the newspaper did is tantamount to a newspaper publishing an article stating that the congressman had previously been convicted of sexual assault while omitting that the conviction was overturned on appeal for lack of sufficient evidence. Furthermore, recklessness can be inferred because the newspaper could have easily discovered and published the statements on www.praisemyprofesssor.com; the newspaper’s choice not to portrayed the congressman in a false and defamatory light.  

This is not to say, of course, that the above argument is persuasive and will lead to a successful result. It is to say, however, that it will likely make a ‘bad’ argument better and more palatable to the court.

Put simply, think outside of the box. Take a chance. Be creative. And in so doing, convince the court that the rule or outcome you seek is not a radical departure from existing law.  

2.    Ask questions that put your opponent on the defensive and expose weaknesses in your opponent’s argument

When you have to make a ‘bad’ argument, you should take an offensive, not defensive approach. Specifically, you should confront directly the weaknesses in your opponent’s argument. One way to do so is by posing simple questions that show how your opponent’s argument would lead to an unjust and unfair result, and constitute bad law and bad policy.

Below are a few examples relating to the above hypothetical:

So, it’s ok for a newspaper to selectively and with impunity publish facts about a public official that portray that official in a false and defamatory light?

So, it’s permissible for a public official’s reputation to be irreparably damaged because a newspaper concocted a false and misleading narrative by omitting student reviews that undermined that narrative – and suppressed the truth?

So, the court’s interpretation of ‘reckless’  means that it is perfectly fine for a newspaper to cherry-pick its sources to propagate a fake narrative that irreparably damages a public official and influences an election?

These questions aren’t perfect, but you get the point. By asking direct questions, you put your opponent on the defensive. You enable the court to view the issue in a different light. And you allow the court to answer the questions in a way that will lead to a favorable outcome.

3.    Forget the straw man – attack and undermine your opponent’s best argument

Never, never, never avoid the elephant in the room. And never make a straw man argument.

Instead, attack your opponent’s best argument. Explain how the rule your opponent supports will lead to unfair and unjust consequences in this and future cases. For example, regarding the hypothetical above, explain why your opponent’s argument makes it nearly impossible for public officials to ever obtain remedies for defamatory statements, and why it makes it nearly always possible for newspapers to publish misleading information with impunity.

4.    Use quantitative and qualitative data to maximize the persuasive value of your argument

Quantitative and qualitative data enhances the persuasive of any legal argument and can sometimes transform a ‘bad’ argument into a relatively persuasive argument. For example, regarding the above hypothetical, consider the following use of empirical data relating to the actual malice standard:

In the last ten years, relevant empirical data shows that the country’s ten most widely circulated newspapers published over 1,000 articles that contained false and misleading information about public officials. Despite over 100 lawsuits by public officials seeking damages for defamation, only one lawsuit led to a finding in the public official’s favor. This data reveals a disturbing fact: newspapers can publish false and misleading information with impunity because the actual malice standard – particularly the stringent interpretation of “reckless disregard” – serves as an impenetrable shield to any accountability whatsoever.

Although this argument obviously isn’t perfect, it does give the court something to think about, namely, that the actual malice standard over-protects newspapers and under-protects individuals who are damaged by the dissemination of incomplete and misleading information.

5.    If the court isn’t likely to agree with anything you say, make sure that you get the court to agree with something you say

When presenting a ‘bad’ argument in a brief or at an oral argument, you will in many instances know with relative confidence whether the court is likely to respond with skepticism and even hostility to your position.

Consider the hypothetical above. An appellate court will almost certainly hold that the newspaper’s conduct does not even remotely support a defamation claim because there is no evidence that the statements were false or, even if they were false, that the newspaper’s conduct satisfies the actual malice standard. Indeed, you may have a nightmare on the eve of oral argument in which a judge on the appellate panel says something like this:

So, um, counselor, how can you honestly and with a straight face argue that the newspaper’s statements, which you don’t contend are false, can miraculously show a ‘reckless disregard for truth’ and satisfy the actual malice standard? What is wrong with you? How could you possibly present such a ridiculous argument to this court?

Uh oh. I wouldn’t want to be that attorney.

So, what should you do?

Well, you can decide to not show up for court, immediately quit the legal profession, and become a comedian. Or you can respond by getting the judge to agree with you on at least one proposition. For example, you could respond as follows:

I’m glad that you asked that question. To begin with, I think we can all agree that disseminating false, incomplete, and misleading information about any individual to the public can cause substantial and irreversible reputation harm. And we can probably also agree that a healthy democracy demands that newspapers have the right – indeed the obligation – to publish statements that criticize and reveal unfavorable facts about public figures. But I respectfully disagree with your contention that the statements aren’t false. When read in isolation, that may be true, but when read in context, the statements are decidedly untrue. Put simply, disseminating incomplete and thus misleading statements about an individual unquestionably portrays that individual in a false and defamatory light, thus making the message conveyed by the statements – that the congressman was a terrible professor – demonstrably false. Consider, for example, what a reasonable person would have thought of the congressman if the newspaper had published the statements on both www.criticizemyprofessor.com and www.praisemyprofesssor.com. The answer should be obvious: a reasonable person would view the congressman in a more favorable – and truthful – light. And that is the problem. Consequently, the dissemination of incomplete and misleading information is itself false and defamatory.

Now, this answer is undoubtedly not perfect and the flaws are obvious. It may not sway the judge and it almost certainly will not convince the court that the newspaper’s statements support a defamation claim. But remember that you are stuck with a ‘bad’ argument and trying to make it good enough to convince the court to reconsider the merits of your position. This response does raise an interesting point that may cause the court to pause for a moment and rethink its opinion concerning whether the statements could be construed as defamatory.

6.    Argue with emotion and confidence

Perception matters. Confidence and passion matter. Especially when you are the underdog.

When presenting an oral argument, for example, you should use verbal and non-verbal techniques to show that you believe passionately and confidently in your argument, and in the outcome you seek. It doesn’t matter that you are presenting a ‘bad’ argument. What matters is that you advocate intelligently and forcefully as if your argument is and should be considered meritorious.  When you exhibit confidence and passion (and make a well-structured argument),  you enhance the likelihood that the court will think twice and question its preconceived notions or assumptions about your argument’s validity.

7.    Appeal to the court’s sense of fairness and justice

Judges want to do the right thing. And judges will often engage in legal gymnastics to arrive at the outcome that they believe is just. If you doubt that, read Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade, where the United States Supreme Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause in a constitutionally indefensible manner to reach results that arguably reflected the majority’s policy predilections.

Regardless, because constitutional provisions, legal rules, and statutes are often broadly phrased, and precedent is often distinguishable, a court can in, many instances, reach a variety of justifiable outcomes. You can bet that the outcome a court reaches will reflect the court’s belief about what constitutes the fairest and most just result. After all, judges are not robots. They don’t just mechanically apply the law. They want to do the right thing -- or simply reach outcomes that reflect their policy preferences.  

***

Ultimately, these strategies may not always be successful, but they will make your ‘bad’ argument better and increase the likelihood of succeeding on the merits.

August 7, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 24, 2021

How to Effectively Line and Copy Edit Your Brief

The writing process consists of three phases: (1) the first draft; (2) the rewriting stage; and (3) the line and copy edit. This article focuses on line and copy editing, which involves reviewing your writing for, among other things, conciseness, clarity, word choice, repetition, and persuasive value. Below are tips to ensure that you can line and copy edit effectively for briefs and other legal documents.

1.    Make your sentences concise

Long and wordy sentences are the enemies of effective and persuasive writing. Focus on getting to the point in as few words as possible. Use simple words. Be clear and straightforward. Consider this example:

The issue in this case is whether the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms. We contend that it does.

This sentence is far too wordy. Instead of the above statement, simply say:

The Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms.

Likewise, consider this example:

The issue to be decided by the court is whether the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which unquestionably and unmistakably protects substantive liberty interests pursuant to the substantive due process doctrine, encompasses within its reach the fundamental and thus basic right to terminate a pregnancy. The answer is certainly yes.

Wow. What an awful, fifty-two word sentence. Instead of this nonsense, simply say:

The Fourteenth Amendment’s liberty guarantee supports a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.

That sentence is thirteen words, and it says the same thing.

Remember that judges can easily recognize bad writing, and the failure to communicate concisely is a classic sign of bad writing.  

2.    Focus on coherence and flow

Make sure that your paragraphs are coherent and flow effectively. In so doing, remember that paragraphs should never occupy an entire page. They should begin with a concise sentence and focus on a single point, such as an element of a cause of action. Consider, for example, a negligence lawsuit, which requires a plaintiff to show that a defendant: (1) owed a duty; (2) breached that duty; (3) directly and proximately caused injury; and (4) caused legally compensable damages.  With this in mind, consider the following statement:

The defendant was negligent in treating the plaintiff’s back injury. The defendant, as a doctor and certified surgeon specializing in back injuries, owed a duty to the plaintiff to exercise a degree of care that was consistent with doctors of similar quality and experience. But the defendant breached this duty when he failed to operate on the correct area of the plaintiff’s spine. And this breach was contrary to and inconsistent with the conduct of similarly situated professionals in the medical industry. Moreover, the defendant’s conduct was the direct and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. First, but for the defendant’s conduct, the plaintiff would never have suffered any injuries whatsoever. Second, the defendant’s conduct proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Most importantly, the plaintiff suffered legally compensable injuries that should result in a verdict in plaintiff’s favor.

This paragraph is utter nonsense.  It includes all four elements of negligence in a single paragraph without even attempting to explain in sufficient depth why the plaintiff’s case satisfies these elements. The better approach is to discuss each element in four separate and concise paragraphs.  

3.    Keep the reader’s attention

When does writing fail to keep the reader’s attention? When you write long sentences. When you write long paragraphs. When you use fancy or esoteric words. When you repeat yourself. When you tell, but don’t show. When your writing is simply boring. Consider the following example:

The defendant assaulted and severely injured the plaintiff in a most invidious and insidious manner. To be clear, the defendant assaulted the plaintiff in a most egregious manner because the plaintiff trusted the defendant and because the defendant represented to the plaintiff that he was a trusted friend and because the defendant told the plaintiff that he would always be a loyal and trusted friend, which is a representation upon which the plaintiff relief and did so to his detriment, as the complaint alleges. Also, the duplicitous behavior of the defendant showed that his purported loyalty was evanescent in nature and execrable in design.

This paragraph is worse than the Friday the 13th movies.  Instead of this ridiculous statement, begin with a powerful opening sentence. Use short sentences. Include specific and vivid details that tell a compelling story and that engage the reader logically and emotionally.

4.    Eliminate filler words

Sentences should include only necessary and purposeful words.  As such, eliminate words like “just,” “very,” and “really.” Consider the following example:

My settlement offer should really be considered by your client.

versus

Your client should consider my settlement offer.

The second example eliminates the filler words. It gets to the point quickly and directly.

5.    Don’t repeat words

If you repeat words, it suggests that you didn’t take the time to edit your brief and it makes your writing seem contrived. Consider the following example:

The defendant’s conduct exacerbated the plaintiff’s injuries. These injuries were severe and, due to being exacerbated by the defendant’s conduct, continue to affect the plaintiff’s health. Indeed, the defendant’s conduct, which as stated above, exacerbated the plaintiff’s injuries, is negligent as a matter of law.

Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the substance of your argument, the reader is likely to wonder why you used the word “exacerbate” three times. To avoid this problem, get a thesaurus.

6.    Don’t suggest unintended meanings or biases

Your word choice is the vehicle by which you convey meaning. Thus, be careful not to use words that may imply that you harbor prejudices or biases.  Consider the following example:

The defendant was mentally retarded and should be held incompetent to stand trial.

Yeah, that’s not good. Instead, say:

The defendant was intellectually disabled and should be held incompetent to stand trial.

Remember to always write with sensitivity and objectivity. If your writing reveals underlying prejudices or biases, you – and your argument – will lack credibility.

7.    Avoid words that convey uncertainty or equivocation

Your writing should be powerful and unequivocal because it shows that you believe in your argument. For example, don’t say this:

The court’s decision seems to be based on reasoning that is inconsistent with precedent.

Whatever. Imagine if a man proposed marriage to a woman, and the woman said in response, “I think so,” or “This seems like what I want.” They probably wouldn’t be tying the knot anytime soon – or ever. Instead, say:

The court’s decision is based on reasoning that is inconsistent with precedent.

The latter sentence is direct and declarative, and thus more persuasive.

8.    Eliminate cliches

When you include cliches in your writing, it suggests that you are unoriginal and that you didn’t spend much time revising and perfecting your work product. For example, don’t say this:

My client, a professional boxer, wasn’t going to quit the fight until, as they say, “the fat lady sings.”

That sentence is terrible. Instead, say:

My client is a professional boxer who refused to quit and fought with his heart for every round of the fight.

This statement might make the reader envision the Rocky movies. It might also demonstrate that you are thinking for yourself and not relying on stale and tired phrases to support your argument. When you do that, your sentences will be original, relatable, and memorable.

9.    Know what your words mean

Don’t use words that you misunderstand or don’t understand. Consider this example:

The law’s affects will suppress citizens’ First Amendment rights.

Don’t make such a foolish mistake. Instead, say:

The law’s effects will suppress citizens’ First Amendment rights.

And be sure not to reveal that you simply don’t understand the meaning of a word. Consider this example:

The invidious weather caused the plane crash.

versus

The inclement weather caused the plane crash.

The first sentence would make the reader question the writer’s credibility – for good reason.

10.    Lose the adverbs

Great attorneys know how to use the facts and the law to craft a compelling story that shows, not tells, a court why it should rule in their favor. To that end, they minimize, if not eliminate, adverbs. Indeed, adverbs describe what happened, but they don’t capture the moment. Consider the following examples:

The party was extremely loud.

versus

The party was deafening.

***

The defendant was extraordinarily tired.

versus

The defendant was exhausted.

The difference should be obvious: “deafening” is more powerful than “extremely loud,” and “exhausted” is more powerful than “extraordinarily tired.”

11.    Lose the adjectives

Like adverbs, adjectives describe what happened, but they don’t capture the moment. Consider the following example:

The plaintiff’s journey to seek justice for her deceased daughter in this court has been really long and arduous.

Who cares? Law school exams are long and arduous. The bar exam is long and arduous. Relationships are long and arduous. And one’s belief in what is “long and arduous” is subjective. Put simply, nothing in the above statement connects with the reader in a relatable and compelling manner. Consider this example:

The plaintiff has waited patiently for three years, seven months, and twenty-eight days to obtain justice for her deceased daughter.

The second example is more powerful because it includes specific details. In so doing, it more effectively places the reader in the plaintiff’s shoes and enables the reader to relate to the plaintiff’s struggle.

12.    Think differently about active versus passive voice

The conventional wisdom is that writers should use the active voice and avoid the passive voice. That’s not always true. You should use the passive voice, for example, when de-emphasizing unfavorable facts.

Consider a case in which your client made allegedly defamatory statements about a public official, but contended that he or she believed those statements were true. Which of the following statements would you prefer?

The defendant admittedly made potentially defamatory statements about the plaintiff, but he contends that they are true.

versus

The alleged defamatory statements, which were made by the defendant, are true.

The second example is better because it de-emphasizes the unfavorable fact, namely, that the defendant made the statements, and it maintains the focus on the argument that the statements were true.

12.    Good judgment leads to good writing

Legal writing is not a mechanical task in which you robotically apply a set of techniques to create a persuasive argument. Rather, you have to exercise good judgment – and common sense – when drafting briefs or other legal documents. This includes, but is not limited to, choosing specific words that enhance your brief’s persuasive value, varying the length of your sentences, choosing a compelling theme, deciding which facts to emphasize, and determining how to address effectively unfavorable facts and law. Thus, never approach legal writing as a mechanical or formulaic endeavor; understand that the quality of your judgment and common sense will impact substantially your brief’s quality and persuasiveness.

***

Ultimately, how you say something is equally, if not more, important than what you say. For law students, the message should be clear: the quality of your writing and communication skills largely determines whether you will be successful in the legal profession.

July 24, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 2, 2021

How to Be Persuasive

Persuading other people to adopt your point of view, whether in a courtroom, a faculty meeting, a debate, or any other context, depends on how you deliver your argument. Below are tips to maximize the persuasive value of an argument.

1.    Persuasion is about perception

In many instances, people do not decide whether to accept a particular argument based on facts or science. Rather, their decision is based on their perception of you. And that perception will be influenced substantially by how you deliver your argument. The most important aspect of that delivery is confidence. If you appear confident, the audience will be more likely to agree with you, regardless of contrary facts or evidence.

Simply put, confidence is everything.

Confident advocates take a stand and are bold.

They are unequivocal.

They never get flustered.

They never act surprised.

They never say “um,” or, “I think,” or, “I’m not entirely sure.”

When they receive hostile questions, they react by stating, “I’m really glad that you asked that question.”

In short, if you win the battle of perception, you also likely win the war of persuasion.

2.    Make your audience initially agree with you by connecting your argument to commonly accepted values

To win an argument at the end, you have to win at the beginning. And winning at the beginning means connecting your argument to broader values upon which nearly all people can agree. If people agree with the broader values underlying your argument, they will be more likely to accept the specific aspects of that argument. Consider the following examples of two hypothetical lawyers arguing that the First Amendment protects “hate speech”:

Example 1

The First Amendment protects hate speech because the Founders believed that the right to free speech was essential to liberty and democracy. As a result, offensive, distasteful, and unpopular ideas must be tolerated to ensure that a true marketplace of ideas exists and that people are not threatened by government censorship. Therefore, hate speech, however one might define such speech, must be tolerated.

Ok, whatever. Now consider this example:

Example 2

Speech that degrades, denigrates, and demeans other people can be terribly hurtful. I’m sure that we can all recall a moment in our lives when another person said something demeaning to us and remember the pain that it caused.  And I’m sure we wish that all people realized the harm that words can cause and respected the dignity of every human being. At the same time, most people don’t want the government to become the speech police. They don’t want the government to arbitrarily decide what speech is considered “hate speech,” and what speech is not, thus giving it the power to censor whatever ideas it deems unpopular. If the government had that power, liberty, autonomy, and democracy would be threatened. For these reasons, as much as we may despise those who degrade, denigrate, and demean others, the answer is to fight back by using our free speech rights, not to give the government carte blanche to dictate what we can and cannot say.

The second example appeals to values that most reasonable people accept and view as essential to a free society. And when they agree with these broader values, they are likely to accept the argument that hate speech must receive First Amendment protection.

Simply put, if they agree with you at the beginning, they are more likely to agree with you at the end.

3.    It’s ok to be a little unprofessional in the right circumstances

Advocates who are authentic, likable, relatable, and passionate are more likely to sway an audience.  And in some instances, authenticity means ‘being real’ and dispensing with formalities when making an argument. In short, sometimes it’s ok to be a little unprofessional. Why? Because it conveys your passion. It shows that you believe in your argument.

Consider the following examples involving two hypothetical appellate advocates who are arguing to the New Jersey Supreme Court the issue of whether defense counsel's performance at trial violated the Sixth Amendment:

Example 1

In Strickland v. Washington, the United States Supreme Court held that a Sixth Amendment violation occurs where counsel’s performance is negligent and where such negligence results in prejudice, meaning that, but for counsel’s negligence, the outcome of the trial would have been different. This case is a perfect example of ineffective assistance of counsel. Counsel slept during parts of the trial. Counsel admitted to having a cocaine addiction and to being an alcoholic. Yet, the appellate court held that this conduct was harmless error because my client confessed to the crime. Now my client will be incarcerated for twenty-five years for voluntary manslaughter. This decision was erroneous and should be reversed.

Yeah, right. Based on that argument, the appellate court’s decision isn’t going to be reversed. Now consider this example:

Example 2

My client was represented by counsel who, during the trial, was addicted to and snorting cocaine. He was represented by counsel who smelled of alcohol. And due to the hangovers caused by his frequent cocaine and alcohol binges, counsel fell asleep during the trial, including during the prosecution’s examination of critical witnesses. It should come as no surprise that anyone represented by a drug-addicted, alcoholic, and sleeping lawyer would be convicted. But it should come as a shock that such a conviction would be upheld on appeal. The appellate court didn’t give a shit about this blatant denial of due process. The appellate court didn’t give a shit about the drugs, the booze, and the frequent naps during the trial. To the court, this was harmless error. If that is harmless, it’s difficult to know what would be harmful.

The second example is real. It is raw. It is authentic.

Of course, being a little unprofessional doesn’t give you a license to be a jerk. Never be disrespectful or attack personally your adversary or the lower court. And keep the four-letter words to a minimum. But there are instances in which your passion and authenticity can be best expressed by dispensing with the formalities and being real. 

4.    Reframe your opponent’s argument

Don’t allow your opponents to frame issues on their terms. Reframe the issues to support your argument and reinforce the commonly accepted values on which they are based. For example, consider the above example regarding ineffective assistance of counsel and how the hypothetical attorney in Example 2 reframes the argument to appeal to basic and commonly accepted values.

Example 1

The state acknowledges that defense counsel had a drug and alcohol problem and that defense counsel slept during portions of the trial. But that is not the relevant inquiry. The question is whether defense counsel’s performance prejudiced the defendant, such that the outcome of the trial would have been different had counsel performed differently. The answer to that question is no. The conviction should be affirmed.

Example 2

The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel snorted cocaine during the trial. The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel is an alcoholic. The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel falls asleep during a trial and renders the defendant helpless in the legal process. The state is asking this court to hold that attorneys who are addicted to cocaine and alcohol, and who decide to sleep rather than aggressively advocate for their clients, satisfies the Sixth Amendment’s promise of effective assistance of counsel. To accept the state’s argument is to say that the Sixth Amendment has no meaning whatsoever.

Yikes. I wouldn’t want to be a justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court in such a case. 

5.    Explain with specificity why your position is good policy and will lead to fair and just results

It’s not sufficient that your proposed rule or policy is workable based on the facts of a specific case. The most persuasive arguments demonstrate that such a rule or policy would be workable, fair, and just in future cases and in a variety of contexts.

To achieve this objective, you should do three things. First, make sure that your position is supported by facts and empirical data. Second, acknowledge weaknesses in your position and explain how your rule or proposal addresses such weaknesses and leads to just results. Third, to demonstrate its efficacy and fairness, give hypothetical examples explaining how your rule or proposal would be applied in other contexts.

***

After all, facts don’t always win arguments.

The law doesn’t always win arguments.

You do.

Be confident. Be authentic.

Own it.

July 2, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Book Review: Daniel P. Selmi & Rebecca A. Delfino, Principles of Appellate Advocacy (2d Ed. 2021)

Often, students and practitioners ask for me book recommendations on appellate advocacy.  Like many, I am a fan of Bryan Garner’s works and of anything by Judge Ruggero J. Aldisert.  Recently, Professors Daniel P. Selmi and Rebecca A. Delfino, colleagues of mine when I was teaching at Loyola Law School Los Angeles, published the Second Edition of Principles of Appellate Advocacy with Wolters Kluwer (Aspen).  The book is aimed at law students, but its straightforward organization and direct examples will help students and newer practitioners alike.  I will definitely be recommending Principles of Appellate Advocacy in the future.

Delfino explained she found the first edition of the book when she needed a legal writing and appellate advocacy text that would not “overwhelm students with a disparate mixture of rules, arcane procedural requirements, and multiple writing instructions.”  She also:  “didn’t want to use a dense case book, a workbook of exercises, or seminar materials full of platitudes or hacks geared to practitioners.  Instead, I wanted something practical, concise, and accessible written by someone who knows the law student audience.”  Delfino found Selmi’s first edition easily manageable for students, with instructions “laser-focused on appellate brief-writing.”

In the second edition, Selmi and Delfino, now a co-author, have retained the comfortable length and approachability of the book.  The second edition is only 166 pages before the samples and problems.  While full of excellent concrete examples, the text flows easily and invites students to stay engaged with clear and direct writing.  Just like a good brief, the book has a very helpful Table of Contents and keeps the focus on explaining why each proposed writing technique matters. 

Delfino explained the main changes to the second edition came from student and colleague feedback.  Selmi and Delfino added more information on standards of review, appealable error, and preservation of issues for appeal.  They also included new exercises to stress the “rules for writing discussed in the text and [provide] practice revision and editing techniques.”  Finally, they added a helpful video on oral argument and a sample syllabus.

I especially liked Chapter 10, “Basic Writing and Other Mechanics.”  As the authors aptly explain, good writing “is not a matter of ‘style’” but of following key principles.  Principles of Appellate Advocacy provides ten areas of focus for the best legal writing, such as manageable sentence and paragraph length and effective topic sentences.  The book also has great examples, some in understandable diagram form, of the dreaded passive voice and nominalizations my students use sometimes. 

As the authors note in the Introduction, “Appellate brief writing is a time-intensive exercise” and a “course in appellate advocacy undoubtedly will take more of students’ time than they estimate.”  But the new edition of Principles of Appellate Advocacy will help students and newer practitioners get to winning briefs more quickly and easily.

June 26, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Books, Law School, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Five Tips for Students in Moot Court and for Appellate Advocates

Moot Court is an important class in law school because it teaches students the skills necessary to be effective appellate advocates.  Below are five rules that moot court students – and practicing appellate advocates – should follow when arguing before an appellate court.

1.    Start strong

First, begin with a powerful opening sentence that captures the court’s attention. Of course, don’t be too general or overly dramatic. Instead, ask yourself how you would describe in one sentence why you should win. The answer should be your opening sentence.

Second, use the Rule of Three. After your opening sentence, immediately and concisely provide the court with three reasons supporting the outcome you seek. Be sure that they are clearly delineated and supported by the record and relevant law.

Third, tell the court what remedy that you are seeking and the rule you would like the court to adopt. The court needs to know what you want and why giving you what you want would result in a workable rule that can be applied fairly and consistently to future cases. Put simply, the beginning of your argument is a roadmap for the court to follow that will lead to a ruling in your favor.

Consider the following examples by attorneys who are appealing a district court’s decision to dismiss via summary judgment their client’s defamation case on the ground that the alleged defamatory statements were constitutionally protected opinion:

May it please the court. The First Amendment is sacrosanct in our society. Ensuring a robust marketplace of ideas is essential to a democratic society. To that end, unpopular ideas are protected from government censure and even the most distasteful comments warrant First Amendment protection. But sometimes, people cross the line and say things that neither the First Amendment nor common decency should countenance. The founders did not intend for any speech, no matter how harmful, to receive First Amendment protection, as the United States Supreme Court has recognized in cases like Miller v. California and Brandenburg v. Ohio. This is one of those cases. The harm caused to my client by the statements made against him is actionable under federal law.

What nonsense. If I was the client and listened to this opening, I would cringe and possibly run out of the courtroom. Now consider this example:

May it please the court. The appellee’s statement implied underlying false facts, was defamatory as a matter of law, and caused severe reputational harm. First, the statement that my client was “a disgusting person and attorney who would lie to any client to make money,” implied that my client was an incompetent and unethical lawyer. Under United States Supreme Court jurisprudence, these statements are actionable and defamatory. Second, the statement is verifiably false. As demonstrated in the over fifty reviews by former clients, my client's inclusion in the Best Lawyers in America for the past ten years, and his selection as the Lawyer of the Year last year, the statement is untrue. Third, the statement has subjected my client to harm and ridicule in the community. Several clients have fired him. Many have sent him offensive emails. He has been suspended from the State Ethics Committee on which he served. For these reasons, we respectfully request that this court overturn the district court’s grant of summary judgment by applying the well-settled principle that opinions implying underlying facts can – and often are – defamatory.

 The difference should be obvious.

2.    Answer the judges’ questions.

Perhaps the most important part of an oral argument at the appellate level is the judges’ questions. Those questions provide insight into, for example, concerns the judges may have about one or more of your arguments or the rule that you would like them to adopt. They are also an opportunity – indeed the best opportunity – to make your case to the judges.

To do so, you should follow two basic rules. First, answer the questions directly. Do not try to avoid them or give answers that may sound persuasive but that aren't responsive. You are a lawyer, not a politician. If you give evasive answers, you will lose credibility with the judges. You will show that you lack effective responses to the judges' concerns. And that will undermine the strength of your argument. Thus, be sure to answer the questions directly. Those answers may require you to acknowledge weaknesses in your case, such as unfavorable facts or law. Who cares. The best attorneys concede these points and explain why they do not affect the outcome they seek.

Second, the best attorneys pivot seamlessly from the question back to their argument and thus continue the argument with excellent organization and flow. Consider the following examples:

Judge: Counselor, as bad as this statement may seem, stating that someone is a ‘disgusting person’ is pure opinion. If we accepted your argument, almost any statement could be construed as asserting an underlying fact, thus compromising core First Amendment values. So where would you draw the line or, to put it differently, what criteria would you use to distinguish between pure opinions and those that imply underlying facts?

Attorney: Well, the real issue here is about the harm. My client’s reputation has been severely and, perhaps, irreparably harmed by this statement. And the record amply supports that fact. So, the technical distinction between pure opinions and opinions implying underlying facts is really just an argument about semantics.

Judge: Let me try this one more time. What criteria would you use to distinguish pure opinions from opinions implying underlying facts?

Attorney: With all due respect your honor, that is not the question in this case. The question is whether my client was defamed. The answer is yes.

That is simply terrible. Now consider this example.

Judge: Counselor, as bad as these statements may seem, stating that someone is a ‘disgusting person’ is pure opinion. If we accepted your argument, almost any statement could be construed as asserting an underlying fact, thus compromising core First Amendment values. So where would you draw the line or, to put it differently, what criteria would you use to distinguish between pure opinions and those that imply underlying facts?

Attorney: The distinction is verifiability. Pure opinions cannot be proven to be factually false. For example, if a person says, “the New York Yankees are a bad team,” that would be a pure opinion because what one considers ‘bad’ is subjective. But if a person said, “The New York Yankees are only a good team because of the stuff their players take to enhance their performance,” that would be an opinion that implies underlying facts because it can be proven that the players do not take performance-enhancing substances. In this case, the appellee did not simply say that my client was a ‘disgusting person.’ He said that he was a ‘disgusting person and attorney who would lie to any client to make money.' We can verify, through affidavits and sworn testimony, that he never lied to a single client about any matter pertaining directly or indirectly to their representation. And that is why the rule we ask this court to adopt is neither novel nor unworkable. We simply ask that you apply well-settled precedent stating that opinions implying underlying false facts can be defamatory. Indeed, in this case, they most certainly were defamatory.

Again, the difference should be obvious.

3.    Have a conversation with the court

During an oral argument, you should be yourself and have a conversation, not a confrontation, with the court. The judges are not your enemies. They are simply trying to reach the fairest outcome that is consistent with the law and justified by the facts. Thus, you should be friendly and respectful, realizing that, as an advocate and as an officer of the court, your responsibility is to help the judges reach the best result while remaining faithful to your client’s objectives.

The best way to do this is to provide the court with a practical and workable legal rule that can be applied fairly and consistently to future cases. Remember that appellate judges are not focused exclusively or even primarily on your client. They are focused on whether the outcome they reach and the rule they adopt will provide workable and just in future cases, both as a matter of law and policy. For this reason, the best appellate lawyers advocate fiercely on their clients' behalf but also propose legal rules that the court believes will provide clarity, fairness, consistency, and predictability in future cases.

4.    Don’t screw up on the basic aspects of appellate practice

Never make the basic mistakes, namely, the ‘red flag’ errors that undermine your credibility and your case. For example:

  • Know the record
  • Know the law (and please make sure your legal authority remains valid law)
  • Know the standard of review
  • Write an outstanding – and concise – appellate brief and remember that the brief is more important than the oral argument
  • Never be disrespectful to the lower or appellate court, or the adversary
  • Follow the federal or state rules, and the local rules
  • Don’t make weak arguments
  • Cite cases and other authority
  • Know the difference between binding and persuasive authority
  • Have realistic expectations and communicate those expectations to your client
  • Don’t use notes at oral argument
  • Be honest
  • Don’t be a jerk

This list is certainly not exhaustive. But if you violate one of these rules, your chances of winning will be compromised – as will your reputation.

5.    Have a short list of ‘non-negotiable’ legal arguments

It’s difficult to predict what will happen in an oral argument. Some appellate panels ask many questions, which is known as a ‘hot’ bench. Some ask few questions. Sometimes, the judges raise issues that you don't expect or ask questions that you have difficulty answering. Regardless of what happens at an oral argument, you should always have a list in your mind of the arguments that are so essential that you must communicate them to the court, no matter what the direction or focus of the argument.

And remember, there are some things that cannot be taught or that require significant practice. Those are a lawyer's: (1) charisma; (2) personality; and (3) persuasiveness. The best appellate advocates have all three.

June 13, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 5, 2021

How to Win an Argument

Winning an argument depends in substantial part on effectively using strategies to maximize your argument’s persuasive and logical force, expose weaknesses in your adversary’s argument, and convince the audience to adopt your position. Below are tips that will enhance your chances of winning an argument in many contexts, such as in court, at a debate, or in a negotiation.

1.    Require that your adversary define relevant terms with specificity.

You should always require your adversary to define important terms that are essential to proving or disproving an argument. And you should never engage in or respond to arguments that consist of overly general propositions. For example, imagine the following discussion between two scholars who differ about the extent to which systemic racism and white privilege exists in the United States:

Scholar: Both history and current laws demonstrate that the United States is systemically racist, and that white privilege is pervasive throughout this country. Ultimately, until our society is more diverse and inclusive, we will continue to oppress marginalized populations.

Wow. There is a lot to unpack in that statement. 

Importantly, the scholar’s adversary should neither react nor respond to the substance of that statement. Instead, the scholar’s adversary should state as follows:

I certainly agree that racism, inequality, and oppression are antithetical to basic human values. But how do you define and quantify systemic, or institutional, racism? Which specific institutions do you allege are racist? And how do you define and quantify white privilege?

This strategy forces your opponent to be specific and places on your opponent the burden to provide a definition upon which most reasonable people can agree. In so doing, the opponent will likely reveal underlying assumptions or biases in an argument and thus allow you to expose the flaws in whatever definition the adversary provides. At the very least, you will prevent your opponent from relying on unproven generalities and enable yourself to avoid a futile discourse involving statements that may lack an empirical foundation.  

2.    Expose logical fallacies in your opponent’s argument, especially appeals to authority and emotion.

Logical fallacies undermine many arguments. Two of the most common are the appeals to authority and emotion.

First, many advocates strive to enhance the validity and persuasiveness of an argument by relying upon well-respected sources or unnamed “experts.” Consider the following example:

Any athlete should have the right to kneel for the national anthem and thus exercise their right to free speech. As nearly every justice on the United States Supreme Court has stated, freedom of speech is critical to protecting liberty and democratic values.

This statement represents an appeal to authority. Specifically, the fact that nearly every justice on the Supreme Court may have expressed these sentiments utterly fails to support the argument that any athlete should have the right to kneel for the national anthem. In essence, the person making this statement is saying, “If the justices on the Supreme Court agree with me, the argument must be valid.” Wrong. An argument is valid only if it is based on facts and evidence.  

Second, many advocates appeal to the audience’s emotion when striving to maximize an argument’s persuasive value. Consider the following example:

We must resist attempts to abolish the death penalty. A few years ago, my teenage son was brutally murdered by a man who had previously murdered four teenagers. The only way justice will be served is if we hold this man accountable for the atrocities he committed.

This is a tremendously sad story. But it is not a logically valid argument. Whether the death penalty should be abolished depends on facts and data regarding, among other things, whether the death penalty is applied fairly and equitably, and whether it deters crime. The above statement addresses none of these points.

3.    Begin your argument with a foundational and well-accepted principle.

To maximize the likelihood that the audience will adopt your position, begin your argument with foundational principles that engender widespread agreement. For example, assume that you are debating whether Georgia’s recently-enacted voter identification law will suppress voter turnout, particularly among minority communities. Consider the following two statements:

Georgia’s voter identification law does not and will not impact voter turnout. And the law isn’t targeted at minority communities. It applies to everyone and enhances election integrity.

Versus

Racism and discrimination are intolerable, and equality is a basic principle of democracy and essential to liberty. To that end, we must embrace the core principle that every person, regardless of, among other things, race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, has an equal right to vote and must have equal access to the ballot box. Georgia’s law does not violate this important principle.

Which statement is better? The answer should be obvious – as should the reasons why.

4.    Know the statistics. Again, know the statistics.

To win an argument, you must know the relevant statistics and empirical studies that impact the argument’s validity. If you don’t, or if you rely only on statistics and studies that are favorable to you, your argument’s persuasive force vanishes along with your credibility. For example, some scholars have posited, in law review articles and other publications, that implicit bias is a major contributor to ongoing discrimination, marginalization, and oppression in society. In support of this argument, they cite studies allegedly illustrating implicit bias’s pernicious effects.

There is only one problem. Several recent studies have debunked or, at the very least, cast serious doubt upon the relationship between implicit bias and biased behavior. Sadly, very few advocates of implicit bias training have addressed this damaging evidence. This failure renders their arguments unpersuasive and calls into question their objectivity as scholars.

To avoid this mistake, be sure to prepare extensively before any argument by knowing the relevant facts and data, both favorable and unfavorable, that impact your argument. Don’t be afraid to concede bad facts. Instead, explain why they do not affect the outcome you seek and highlight how the statistics favor the position for which you advocate.

After all, facts and statistics are the foundations of powerful arguments.

5.    Transition from abstract to concrete arguments.

When making an argument, avoid extensive reliance on abstract principles. Instead, provide concrete evidence and examples that support your argument, and offer a solution or rule that demonstrates your position's practicality and workability. Consider the following example:

The Fourth Amendment should not be construed to allow law enforcement officers to conduct warrantless cell phone searches. Privacy is a bedrock principle in the Constitution and citizens have a right to be free from unreasonable, government-sanctioned intrusions on privacy. Furthermore, law enforcement must not be given the power to encroach upon basic civil liberties and thus place the freedoms of all citizens at risk.

Yeah, whatever. That statement is far too abstract. Consider this example:

Warrantless cell phone searches incident to arrest violate the Fourth Amendment. Unlike searches of closed containers or passenger compartments, a cell phone houses a vast amount of the very papers and effects, such as personal photographs, bank statements and other documents, text and email addresses, and online search history, that the Founders would have afforded the highest Fourth Amendment protection. As such, warrantless searches in this context are unreasonable per se. The Court should thus adopt a rule stating that law enforcement officers must have probable cause and warrant before searching a cell phone incident to arrest.

This statement is far more persuasive because it makes specific points, and proposes a workable and practical rule.

6.    Use ‘hidden’ premises in your argument.

Including ‘hidden’ premises in your argument helps to reframe the issue(s) effectively in your favor and increases the likelihood that the audience will agree with your stated premises and conclusion. Additionally, it often presents as accepted or proven precisely the issue(s) that the argument or debate involves. Consider the following example:

The death penalty should be abolished immediately for three reasons. First, the death penalty disproportionately impacts African-American defendants. Second, it is almost certain that innocent people have been executed. Third, the death penalty serves none of the purposes of criminal punishment. Thus, because I am against racial discrimination and inequality, because I do not believe in intentionally murdering innocent civilians, and because I do not support criminal justice policies that have no societal value, the death penalty should be abolished.

This statement is effective because of the ‘hidden’ premises, even though some scholars would disagree with one or more of these assertions. But that is not the point. The point is that all reasonable people are against racial discrimination and inequality. No one believes in “intentionally murdering innocent civilians.” And few would support any policy that has no societal value. By including in your argument widely accepted principles, you increase the likelihood that the audience will accept your argument and adopt your position.

7.    Never allow your adversary to characterize you or your argument inaccurately.

Make your adversary work diligently to establish any point that impacts negatively your argument. Put simply, always challenge inferences or assumptions that your adversary makes to undermine your position. Consider the following example:

Professor Smith recently drafted an article claiming that the late Justice Antonin Scalia was an “intellectual giant on the Supreme Court and the author of many extraordinary opinions that respected the Constitution’s text and structure.” Professor Smith’s endorsement of conservative values and a conservative judicial philosophy means that he will support judges who turn a blind eye to progressive values and marginalized populations.

Be sure to call out such nonsense. What Professor Smith said does not even remotely support the proposition that he endorses conservative values and will support judges who “turn a blind eye” to progressive values (whatever that means).  Never allow your adversary to get away with such a misrepresentation and never concede more than is necessary to maintain your argument’s credibility.  

8.    Listen more and talk less.

It’s the quality, not the quantity, that matters. In an argument, never talk too much and dominate the discussion. When you do so, it suggests that you are insecure about the merits of your argument, that you believe your adversary has made compelling points that require an immediate response (which gives your adversary credibility), and that you are so rigidly attached to your argument that alternative perspectives are neither necessary nor welcomed. Unfortunately, that approach undermines your credibility.

Remember, less is more.  You should listen calmly and carefully to your adversary’s argument. You should recognize good points that your adversary makes and strive to find areas of agreement. And when you do speak, be sure to make a concise, high-quality, and compelling statement. What does that mean? Get to the point immediately. Start with a powerful theme. Use the Rule of Three. Lead with your strongest points. Use statistics to support your assertions. End powerfully and confidently.

Then, shut up.

The best advocates pick their battles effectively.

9.    Never show emotion.

Getting emotional is one of the worst things that you can do in an argument. When you show emotion, such as by being angry, irritated, or offended, it typically means that your adversary is winning the argument and that you are not confident in your position. Consider the following two statements from the captain of an airline to passengers who just flew through severe turbulence in bad weather:

Hi everyone, please do not worry. I know that things were really rough for several minutes, but I will never allow this plane to crash! Let me repeat – I will not let this plane crash, no matter what! I am a veteran of the Air Force and I’m going to fight this weather to the death!

If I were a passenger on this plane, I would immediately believe that the plane was going to crash nose-first into a ditch. Now consider this statement:

Hi folks, sorry about the rough air we just encountered. The plane is fine, of course, and the turbulence we just encountered is pretty common in this part of the country. We’re going to change our altitude as soon as possible to make your flight as comfortable as possible and we don’t expect much rough air for the rest of the flight.

If I were a passenger on this plane, I would feel assured and safe. The difference wasn’t simply the words. It was the measured manner with which the latter statement was delivered.

Simply put, in an argument, be confident. Be calm. Never act surprised by a point your adversary makes or a question that your adversary asks. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t show passion and conviction. You should certainly be your authentic self. But you must avoid the negative reactions and emotional outbursts that invariably raise questions about your credibility and the merits of your argument.

10.    Don’t be an a******.

People like others who are nice. They like others who are respectful, friendly, and civil. They like others who are mature. They like others who are honest and genuine. And when people like you, they will be more likely to listen to you and find you credible. Most importantly, when people like you, they are more inclined to adopt your position. After all, people associate with those that they like and respect.

Conversely, people hate jerks. And they know them when they see them. Jerks attack people rather than ideas. Jerks insult others. Jerks always think that they are right and that else is always wrong. Jerks interrupt people when they are speaking. Jerks misrepresent others’ positions. The list goes on and on.

You get the point. Don’t be an a******.

Remember, when you make an argument, people are not just listening to what you say. They are evaluating you.

June 5, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Derek Chauvin's Conviction Should Be Overturned

On April 20, 2021, after a brief deliberation, a jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin for second-degree unintentional murder (i.e., felony murder), second-degree manslaughter, and third-degree murder in connection with George Floyd’s death.

Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, who has already moved for a new trial before Judge Peter Cahill, will certainly appeal Chauvin’s conviction. Although the likelihood of succeeding on appeal is relatively small, several issues in Chauvin’s case render the guilty verdict vulnerable to reversal.

1.    The jury deprived Chauvin of a fair trial

Chauvin’s defense team will likely argue that the conduct and composition of the jury deprived Chauvin of a fair trial. First, the defense will assert that the jury violated Chauvin’s Fifth Amendment rights. The Fifth Amendment provides, among other things, protection against self-incrimination. At a criminal trial, a defendant may invoke the right against self-incrimination and thus refuse to testify. Importantly, jurors may not infer guilt from a defendant’s silence; doing so is grounds for overturning a guilty verdict.

During the trial, Chauvin invoked his Fifth Amendment right and thus did not testify. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that at least one of the jurors construed that silence against Chauvin. Specifically, shortly after the verdict, Brandon Mitchell (Juror No. 52), spoke to the media and, after being asked whether Chauvin’s silence impacted the jury, stated as follows:

Yeah, definitely it [Chauvin's silence] did when we were in the deliberation room; you know, a few people wondered like they wanted to actually hear from [him]. They were curious on you know, just what his thoughts might have been throughout.  You know it probably was to his detriment that he didn’t take the stand ’cause people were curious on what his thoughts were throughout the entire incident.”[1]

At the very least, Mitchell's statement may cause Judge Cahill to question the jurors regarding the effect, if any, that Chauvin’s silence had on their deliberations.

Second, the defense will argue that the jury was impermissibly biased against Chauvin. Once again, Brandon Mitchell’s conduct provides a basis upon which to support this assertion. After the trial, a photograph emerged of Mitchell wearing a t-shirt that stated, “Get your knee off our necks,” which Mitchell allegedly wore at a Washington, D.C. rally commemorating Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.[2]

The photograph’s impact on appeal will depend primarily on whether Mitchell was truthful when answering the jury questionnaire during voir dire. Specifically, Mitchell was asked the following questions:

“Did you, or someone close to you, participate in any of the demonstrations or marches against police brutality that took place in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death?” one question read, according to the newspaper.

 “Other than what you have already described above, have you, or anyone close to you, participated in protests about police use of force or police brutality?”[3]

Mitchell answered “no” to both questions.

At the very least, the photograph of Mitchell wearing a shirt stating, “Get your knee off our necks,” coupled with his “no” answer to the second question, supports a further inquiry by Judge Cahill into Mitchell's potential bias.

2.    Failure to sequester the jury

Chauvin’s defense team will certainly argue that the jury should have been sequestered from the beginning of the trial, not merely during deliberations. There may be some merit to this argument, given: (1) the pervasive media coverage in the months following Floyd’s death and particularly during the trial; (2) the statement by Maxine Waters, in which she stated that protesters should “get more confrontational” if a guilty verdict was not reached.[4] Indeed, Judge Cahill stated that Waters’ statement may lead to a reversal on appeal. Furthermore, Alan Dershowitz stated:

Well, first, what was done to George Floyd by officer Chauvin was inexcusable, morally, but the verdict is very questionable because of the outside influences of people like Al Sharpton and people like Maxine Waters,” … Their threats and intimidation and hanging the Sword of Damocles over the jury and basically saying, 'If you don’t convict on the murder charge and all the charges, the cities will burn, the country will be destroyed,' seeped into the jury room because the judge made a terrible mistake by not sequestering the jury. 

And a statement by alternate juror Lisa Christensen, although not necessarily relevant to the appeal, suggests that the pressure to reach a guilty verdict may have impacted the jury. When questioned about the possible social unrest that may result from the verdict, Christensen stated as follows:

There was a question on the questionnaire about it and I put I did not know. The reason, at that time, was I did not know what the outcome was going to be, so I felt like either way you are going to disappoint one group or the other. I did not want to go through rioting and destruction again and I was concerned about people coming to my house if they were not happy with the verdict.[5]

Coupled with Brandon Mitchell’s statement (and the photo), Christensen’s statement arguably supports the argument that the jury should have been sequestered.

3.    Failure to Change Venue

Chauvin’s defense will argue that Judge Cahill erred by failing to grant a change of venue. To begin with, the incessant media coverage in Minneapolis and elsewhere following Floyd’s tragic death, coupled with the widespread protests in Minneapolis, which universally condemned Chauvin’s actions (some of which turned violent), may support the argument that Judge Cahill should have granted the defense’s motion to change venue. However, the prosecution will argue that the media coverage and protests occurred throughout Minnesota and the United States, thus rendering it unlikely, if not impossible, that Chauvin would have received a fairer trial anywhere in Minnesota. The prosecution will probably succeed on this aspect of the venue issue.

That, however, does not end the inquiry. Shortly before jury selection, Minneapolis announced that it reached a settlement of twenty-seven million dollars with Floyd’s family in connection with the family’s civil suit. The timing of this settlement is certainly suspect and a legitimate question exists concerning whether the settlement affected the jurors' impartiality.  

4.    Insufficiency of evidence on one or more of the charges

The defense will likely argue that the evidence did not support a conviction for second-degree unintentional murder (felony murder) or third-degree murder. The third-degree murder conviction is problematic because Minnesota’s statute requires that an individual engage in conduct that is a threat to “others.” It is difficult to conceive of how Chauvin’s actions threatened anyone by Floyd, thus warranting a reversal of the conviction on this charge. As a practical matter, however, this will have no impact on the sentencing because the conviction for second-degree unintentional murder, which results in the most severe sentence, will likely be upheld, and because the sentences for each conviction will be imposed concurrently, not consecutively.

***

Ultimately, the vast majority of commentators and citizens viewed Chauvin’s actions as egregious and criminal. Moreover, the likelihood of overturning a conviction on appeal is small.

But in this case, the chances of success are higher. Based on Brandon Mitchell’s statements (and the photograph), the failure to sequester the jury despite the incessant and negative media coverage, and the twenty-seven million dollar settlement on the eve of jury selection, Chauvin’s defense team will have a strong argument to overturn the conviction.

And for the reasons stated, the conviction should be overturned.

Process matters – regardless of Chauvin’s egregious and deplorable conduct.

 

[1] Scott Cosenza, Did Floyd Jurors Violate Chauvin’s Fifth Amendment Rights? (April 29, 2021), available at: Did Floyd Jurors Violate Chauvin's 5th Amend Rights? - Liberty Nation

[2] See Paulina Villegas, Photo of Chauvin Juror Wearing BLM T-Shirt at March Raises Questions of Impartiality, Experts Say (May 3, 2021), available at: Brandon Mitchell, juror in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, faces allegations of prejudice after photo surfaces - The Washington Post

[3] Jonathan Turley, Juror No. 52: Does Chauvin Have a New Challenge Over Juror Brandon Mitchell? (May 4, 2021), available at: Juror 52: Does Chauvin Have A New Challenge Over Juror Brandon Mitchell? – JONATHAN TURLEY

[4] See Chandelis Duster, Waters Calls for Protestors to ‘Get More Confrontational’ If No Guilty Verdict Is Reached in Chauvin Trial (April 19, 2021), available at: Maxine Waters calls for protesters to 'get more confrontational' if no guilty verdict is reached in Derek Chauvin trial - CNNPolitics

[5] Jordan Davidson, Stunning Chauvin Juror Confession: I Was Worried About ‘Rioting and Destruction’ and ‘People Coming to My House’ to Protest Verdict (April 23, 2001), available at: Stunning Chauvin Juror Confession: I Was Worried About ‘Rioting And Destruction’ (thefederalist.com)

May 16, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Ten Tips to Create a Legal Writing Course That Prepares Students for The Real World

In the past year, COVID-19 has transformed how legal education – and legal writing – is delivered to students. Online instruction replaced in-person instruction, professors and students were forced to adapt quickly to an alternative learning format, and grading policies were adjusted to account for the unique hardships that online learning engendered for many law students. And all of this occurred while administrators, faculty, and students were living in fear of a virus that has killed more than 570,000 citizens in the United States.  

Notwithstanding, the challenges involved in transitioning to online learning – along with the challenges of transitioning to in-person instruction post-COVID – need not compromise the transformative and practical instruction that legal writing courses can effectuate, regardless of whether through online or in-person instruction. Indeed, several universal principles or designs can ensure that students learn real-world writing and critical thinking skills in online and in-person contexts. Those principles are below and can be useful to both new and experienced legal writing faculty to ensure that legal writing courses provide students with the competencies to succeed in law school and the legal profession.

1.    Connect legal writing to the real world – a memo and appellate brief are not sufficient.

The best legal writing courses and curriculums connect pedagogy and assignments to the real world.  To do so, legal writing professors should require students to draft and re-draft the most common litigation documents in their courses, including complaints, answers, motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment, trial briefs, and appellate briefs.[1] And these assignments should be given in the order they would be drafted in practice.

To accomplish this objective, legal writing professors should, either individually or collaboratively, draft a detailed hypothetical fact pattern that includes substantive issues from all first-year courses and requires students to “litigate” a hypothetical case from the complaint to appellate brief in the first year of law school (or the first three semesters). The assignments could be administered as follows:

Semester One

Client meeting

Legal research assignment (one or more issues in the hypothetical)

Predictive memorandum (closed research)

Re-write of the predictive memorandum with one or more issues added (open research)

Complaint

Semester Two

Answer (which allows students to self-critique their complaint consider a legal issue from an opposing perspective)

Motion to Dismiss

Motion for Summary Judgment (with previously prepared discovery provided)

Re-write of the Motion for Summary Judgment

Oral argument

Semester Three

Appellate Brief

Re-write of Appellate Brief

Oral Argument

Appellate court opinion (students assume the role of judge and draft an opinion affirming or overturning the lower court)

This format will allow students to gain experience in drafting and re-drafting the most common litigation documents in the order that they would be drafted in practice, thus enabling students to understand the ‘big picture’ of how law is practiced, and gain experience in applying predictive and persuasive writing techniques to various real-world documents and contexts.[2] Perhaps most importantly, this approach enables professors to focus on persuasive advocacy from day one, in which students will be required to, among other things, formulate a theme and theory of the case, distinguish relevant from irrelevant facts, and synthesize the law to present a compelling legal argument. Of course, this would not eliminate instruction on predictive writing; it would simply incorporate the predictive writing component into the litigation and sequence it appropriately.

2.    Prioritize integration over separation – legal writing assignments should be connected to doctrinal courses

When drafting a multi-issue hypothetical that allows students the opportunity to litigate a hypothetical case from the complaint to the appellate brief, law professors should include issues from the students’ required first-year courses. Doing so will enable students to apply the legal doctrines that they are learning in their required courses to real-world contexts and help students to understand how these doctrines operate in law practice. Furthermore, by applying foundational legal doctrines (e.g., personal jurisdiction, negligence) to a real-world fact pattern, students will simultaneously improve their writing and critical thinking skills and learn how to effectively analyze legal issues, which will maximize their performance on end-of semester-exams and enhance their ability to think like lawyers.

For example, a multi-issue fact pattern in a first-year legal writing curriculum can include issues such as negligence, personal jurisdiction, assault and battery, proximate causation, and supplemental jurisdiction. By connecting the assignments in legal writing courses to the topics students are learning in doctrinal courses, the legal writing curriculum will be an essential and integrated part of the curriculum.

3.    Require students to read excellent writing

Before students write, they should read excellent legal writing texts and documents. After all, students need to understand what good writing is before they can become excellent legal writers. For example, professors should require students to read Plain English for Lawyers by Richard Wydick and Chief Justice John Roberts’s brief in Alaska v. Environmental Protection Agency, which is a perfect example of outstanding storytelling and persuasive advocacy.[3]

4.    Make the Rule of Three a cornerstone of legal writing instruction.

The Rule of Three is an effective technique to maximize the persuasive impact of an argument. This technique instructs students, when making legal arguments, to identify three reasons that support a desired outcome or remedy. Social science research demonstrates that the Rule of Three effectively simplifies and organizes an argument for the audience, and appeals to the audience because people respond positively and attentively to arguments that are delivered in sets of three.

5.    Teach students how to re-write and edit, not just write

Excellent writing requires excellent editing.

Indeed, to write effectively, students must understand and embrace the writing process, which consists of the: (1) first draft; (2) rewriting phase; and (3) revision phase. Thus, legal writing professors should instruct students on macro and micro level editing, including issues such as organization, conciseness, word choice, grammar, and style. Put simply, if students do not understand how to re-write and edit effectively, they will not write persuasively.

Perhaps the best way to train students in re-writing and editing is to provide them with a legal brief written by a practicing attorney and require them, individually or in groups, to re-write and edit the document, and explain why their edits made the document flow better and present the arguments more persuasively.

6.    Include time-pressured assignments

As every lawyer knows, legal documents must often be drafted under strict time constraints. Thus, law students should gain experience in drafting real-world documents under the pressures that attorneys face daily.[4] For example, legal writing instructors can require students to draft a rule section explaining the law of defamation and give students, either individually or in groups, twenty-four hours to complete the assignment. Doing so enables students to continue developing their legal writing skills while simultaneously coping with the pressures that they will encounter in law practice.

7.    Include simulations and require students to argue opposing viewpoints

When using a multi-issue hypothetical that requires students to litigate a case from the complaint to the appellate brief, legal writing faculty should include simulations, such as a client interview, presentation of the law to a partner, settlement negotiations, and trial and appellate court oral arguments.  The point is to train students to communicate effectively and interpersonally, which essential to excellent counseling and advocacy.

8.    Truly ‘Flip the Classroom’: Turn the students into teachers

Students should be challenged in the legal writing classroom and curriculum – and treated as peers. One way to do this is to truly flip the classroom by requiring students, as part of an assigned group, to teach particular classes that discuss topics such as IRAC/CRAC, case synthesis, and binding versus persuasive legal authority. Doing so will ensure that the ‘teaching students’ master the relevant material and gain experience in public speaking and communication. Also, this exercise can empower students and create an environment in which they are views as peers in a collaborative learning process.

9.    Stay away from politics

No one cares about your political views.  More specifically, no student wants to enroll in a course where they will be subject to ideological indoctrination. Students learn best – and are motivated to learn – in a classroom where they feel welcomed and accepted. As such, classrooms should be places in which all views – liberal, conservative, libertarian, and whatever else – are welcomed and respected. Thus, to promote diversity of viewpoint and experience, law professors should never make statements or design assignments that strive to advance a particular point of view or agenda. Doing so is antithetical to creating a diverse and inclusive classroom environment.

10.    Be available – always

Great professors care deeply about their students’ success and demonstrate that commitment by being accessible and available to every student – even in the evenings and on weekends. Indeed, getting to know each student individually – and establishing productive relationships with each student – inspires trust and motivates them to work hard and succeed. For these reasons, go the extra mile and be available to students whenever they need advice or assistance. It shows that you care, which inspires students to excellent lawyers – and citizens.  

Ultimately, the best legal writing professors realize that their mission is not about them – it is about improving the skills and lives of their students. These tips will help in achieving those objectives and make the legal writing curriculum a place where students learn to become great lawyers and great people.

 

[1] See Adam Lamparello & Megan Boyd, Legal Writing for the Real World (LexisNexis, 2014).

[2] See Adam Lamparello & Charles E. MacLean, The Guide to Experiential Legal Writing (Carolina Academic Press, 2015).

[3] See Alaska v. Environmental Protection Agency, Petitioner’s Brief, available at: 02-658.mer.pet.pdf (findlawimages.com)

[4] See, e.g., Kathleen Elliot Vinson & Sabrina DeFabritis, Under Pressure: How Incorporating Time-Pressured Performance Tests Prepares Students for the Bar Exam and Practice, 122 West Va. L. Rev. 107 (2019).

May 9, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 18, 2021

An Analysis of the Charges Against Derek Chauvin

George Floyd’s death, which was captured on video, is difficult to watch and, quite frankly, disturbing. In that video, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes, including several minutes after which Floyd had lost consciousness.  Floyd’s death sparked protests (and, in some areas, riots) throughout the country for many months and, over the last three weeks, Chauvin has stood trial for Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. Both the prosecution and defense are expected to deliver closing arguments tomorrow and the jury may begin deliberating as soon as Tuesday.

When deliberations begin, the jury will consider the following three charges against Chauvin: (1) second-degree unintentional murder (felony murder); (2) second-degree manslaughter; and (3) third-degree murder.  Second-degree unintentional murder, which carries a prison sentence of up to forty years, applies to a defendant who “causes the death of a human being, without intent to effect the death of any person, while committing or attempting to commit a felony offense other than criminal sexual conduct in the first or second-degree with force or violence or a drive-by shooting.”[1] Under Minnesota law, the underlying felony must pose a “special danger to human life,” thus requiring at least some risk of death. Second-degree manslaughter applies where an individual’s death results from “the person’s culpable negligence whereby the person creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.”[2] Third-degree murder applies to individuals who “without intent to effect the death of any person, cause the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.”[3]

Determining which, if any, charge will result in a conviction is difficult to predict. During the trial, the prosecution, led by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, presented thirty-eight witnesses. This included testimony from Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who stated that Chauvin’s decision to kneel on Floyd’s neck was not an approved police technique and that Chauvin should have ceased kneeling on Floyd’s neck when he longer presented a threat to the officers (the evidence shows that Chauvin continued restraining Floyd for approximately three minutes after Floyd was unconscious). Additionally, the prosecution presented numerous medical experts who testified that hypoxia, which is a low level of oxygen that leads to asphyxia, caused Floyd’s death, and that the asphyxia resulted from Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes.

The defense, led by attorney Eric Nelson, argued that Floyd’s death was caused by a combination of factors unrelated to Chauvin’s actions, such as drug use and heart disease. For example, the toxicology report revealed that Floyd had ingested a potentially lethal amount of Fentanyl, and that Floyd had methamphetamine and THC in his system. Additionally, Floyd had atherosclerosis and hypertensive heart disease. The defense’s expert, Dr. David Fowler, concluded that these conditions, coupled with the drugs Floyd ingested and his inhalation of carbon monoxide from the squad car, collectively caused his death.  The defense also presented a use-of-force witness who testified that, under the circumstances, Chauvin did not use excessive force.

It is difficult to predict whether the jury will convict Chauvin and, if so, what charge will most likely result in a conviction. The prosecution’s witnesses, particularly Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and Dr. Martin Tobin, were quite compelling. Defense attorney Eric Nelson, however, effectively cross-examined several witnesses and focused extensively on drugs and heart disease as the causes of death.

Arguably, the causation issue will most likely consume much of the jury’s deliberations and will require a determination of whether Chauvin’s actions – or drugs and heart disease – caused Floyd’s death.  Indeed, given the amount of Fentanyl in Floyd’s system and his underlying cardiovascular conditions, it may be difficult for jurors to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death. Importantly, however, the prosecution need only show that Chauvin’s actions were a contributing cause of Floyd’s death, which renders a conviction more likely.

Ultimately, considering the arguments, testimony, and evidence, it seems that, if the jury does convict Chauvin, it will likely be for second-degree manslaughter. A conviction on the third-degree murder charge is implausible because Chauvin’s actions, although reprehensible, did not threaten to harm multiple persons or “others” as the statute requires. Also, a conviction on the second-degree unintentional murder charge seems less likely (although possible) because the felony murder statute has rarely, if ever, been applied to law enforcement officers in the context of restraining a suspect. This is particularly true concerning a suspect who is resisting arrest because, at least for a portion of the time, the restraint used is arguably justified. In addition, given that Chauvin was unaware of the level of Fentanyl in Floyd’s system or of his preexisting heart conditions, it may be difficult to demonstrate that Chauvin intended to inflict bodily harm on Floyd or that he knew his actions were likely to result in such harm. However, a conviction on second-degree manslaughter is arguably justified because Chauvin was culpably negligent by kneeling on Floyd’s neck for minutes after Floyd was unconscious and thus no longer presented a threat to the officers. Indeed, Chauvin’s failure to stop kneeling on Floyd’s neck despite his lack of consciousness cannot be justified.

If the jury returns an acquittal, it will almost certainly result from a belief that, although Chauvin’s actions were appalling and entirely unnecessary, they did not cause Floyd’s death. This is certainly a possibility and will depend on the jury’s assessment of the experts’ credibility and of the relevant medical reports.

Also, if the jury returns a guilty verdict, defense attorney Eric Nelson (or whomever Chauvin retains) will almost certainly appeal. Specifically, Nelson will likely argue, among other things, that Judge Peter Cahill’s refusal to change the venue for the trial deprived Chauvin of the right to a fair trial. And if the jury returns a guilty verdict on the third-degree murder charge, it may be overturned on appeal because Chauvin’s actions, however deplorable, did not threaten harm to multiple people.

Regardless, George Floyd’s death was a tragedy. The video of his death is appalling. Whatever the jury’s verdict, this incident will hopefully lead to reforms in how police are trained in the use of force and de-escalation techniques, such that an incident like this never occurs again.

 

[1] Minn. Stat. 609.19(1).

[2] Minn. Stat. 609.205(1).

[3] Minn. Stat. 609.195.

April 18, 2021 in Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Advice for First-Year Law Students

Law school can be a stressful experience, particularly in the first year. Indeed, during the first year, a significant amount of stress results from the uncertainty regarding law school (e.g., not knowing how to study effectively or how to prioritize tasks) and the pressure to perform well in your courses. The tips below will help to reduce the uncertainty, relieve the pressure, and ensure that your transition to and performance in law school will be successful.

1.    Learn the Rule of Law and Do Not Brief Cases

As a law student – and as a lawyer – your primary responsibility is to know the relevant rules of law governing a particular legal issue and apply those rules to the facts of your case. Thus, from day one in law school, when reading cases, you should focus primarily on extracting the relevant rule of law from each case. For example, in New York Times v. Sullivan, the relevant rule of law is that to succeed in a defamation action, a public figure must show that an alleged defamatory statement was made with actual malice, namely, with knowledge of the statement’s falsity or with reckless disregard for its truth. You need not – and should not – focus on memorizing the facts of the case or the reasoning underlying the court’s decision, or on the concurring or dissenting opinions. Simply identify the rule of law because on your exams and in law practice, your primary responsibility will be to apply that rule (and precedent) to the facts of your client’s case.

As a corollary, do not brief your assigned cases (i.e., do not summarize the facts, procedural history, legal question, reasoning, and holding, or summarize the reasoning underlying the concurring and dissenting opinions, if any). This will require you to spend countless hours on aspects of cases that will neither be tested on the final examination nor improve your ability to apply the rule of law to a hypothetical fact pattern. Thus, just extract the rule of law and move on to the next case.

2.    Use Commercial Outlines

Sometimes, particularly for first-year law students, it can be difficult to identify the rule of law in a specific case. Indeed, in your first-year courses, for each legal topic, such as personal jurisdiction, you will often read many cases that track the evolution and development of a specific legal rule. Your focus should be to identify the current and governing legal rule because that is the rule you will be required to apply to a hypothetical fact pattern on your exam. To assist you in doing so, commercial outlines, such as Emanuel Law Outlines, are an invaluable resource. These outlines provide you with the current rules of law for each subject that you are studying (e.g., criminal law, civil procedure, torts, contracts) and for every legal topic within that subject. By helping you to quickly identify the relevant rules of law, commercial outcomes allow you to begin – early in each semester – the critical task of preparing for the final exam, which you do by taking practice exams.

3.    Take Practice Exams Early and Often – Under Timed Conditions

One of the best ways to excel in law school is to take practice exams, which your professor may make available to you or which you can find on the internet. Taking practice exams enables you to gain experience in, among other things, applying the relevant rules of law to hypothetical fact patterns, addressing counterarguments, and ensuring that your writing is well organized and follows the “IRAC” or “CRAC” structure (i.e., state your conclusion first, followed by a summary of the relevant rules of law, an analysis in which you apply those rules to the facts, and a conclusion).  Taking several practice exams – under timed conditions – will prepare you effectively for the final (or midterm) examination and maximize your likelihood of obtaining an excellent grade.

4.    Purchase the LEEWS Essay Exam Writing System

Just as commercial outlines will assist you in identifying the relevant rules of law, the LEEWS Essay Exam Writing System, which can be found at https://leews.com, will help you to perform extremely well on your exams. The LEEWS system teaches you, among other things, how to organize and structure your exam answer, how to identify legal issues in hypothetical fact patterns, how to address counterarguments, and how to distinguish relevant from irrelevant facts. LEEWS has been used by thousands of law students and is among the best resources available to maximize your performance in law school.

5.    Your Research and Writing Skills Are Essential to Your Success as a Lawyer

Excellent research and writing skills – particularly persuasive writing skills – are essential to good lawyering. Thus, during your three years of law school, focus on mastering your research and writing skills, including when drafting real-world documents such as complaints, motions, and trial and appellate briefs. If you cannot write effectively and persuasively, you will struggle to succeed in the legal profession.

6.    Develop Your ‘Soft Skills’

You can be the smartest and most talented law student in your law school, but if you’re a jerk, you won’t succeed in the legal profession. Being an excellent lawyer is not simply about knowing how to write persuasively and argue effectively. Rather, excellent lawyers know, among other things, how to cooperate and collaborate well with others, listen actively, accept constructive criticism, demonstrate humility, honesty, and decency, and learn from failure. Simply put, your personality influences how others perceive you – and impacts your likelihood of succeeding in the profession. So, don’t be a jerk. Don’t have an ego. Don’t gossip. Be someone who others want to work with – and who are happy when you walk into the office every day.

7.    Take Care of Your Physical and Mental Health and Remember that Mindset is Everything

Law school is stressful, but the legal profession is infinitely more stressful. It’s particularly important during law school and in your life to take care of your physical and mental health. Regardless of your workload, take time each day or several days a week to exercise. Eat healthy food. Do things that make you happy. And make sure to address any mental health or other issues that may arise. If, for example, you are struggling with depression or anxiety, consult a psychiatrist or a psychologist. If you are struggling with a substance abuse problem, seek help. Don’t ignore it or feel shame. Taking care of your physical and mental health in law school will help you to develop the habits and coping skills necessary to succeed in the legal profession.

Most importantly, remember that mindset is everything. All of us encounter adversity and unexpected challenges in life. The key to overcoming them is you. If you have a strong mindset and an empowering thought process, you can – and will – cope effectively with adversity. And remember that your choices, not your circumstances, determine your destiny.

8.    At the End of the Day, Only Happiness Matters

Don’t let law school or the legal profession consume you. Don’t judge your worth on whether you received an A in Civil Procedure or passed the bar exam on the first try. Don’t be affected by what others say about you. Don’t associate with toxic people. Ultimately, what matters is your happiness. So, put yourself first and do what makes you happy. Pursue your passions, whether in law or elsewhere. And remember that there’s more to life than the law.

9.    Don’t Just Help Yourself – Help Others

Going to law school and becoming a lawyer provides you with a tremendous opportunity to improve the lives of other people and to fight for a fair and more just society. So, remember that your career isn’t just about your success – it’s about whether you used your talents to make a difference in the world.

March 20, 2021 in Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Revisiting – and Reconsidering – Implicit Bias

Many academic institutions, professional organizations, and private corporations have embraced implicit bias training as a method by which to combat discrimination. The concept of implicit bias states that all individuals harbor unconscious biases that lead to, among other things, discrimination and the unequal treatment of individuals based on race. Although certainly well-intentioned (eradicating discrimination is a moral imperative), empirical studies suggest that: (1) the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which is used to detect individuals’ implicit biases, is flawed; (2) there is a weak correlation between implicit biases and biased behavior; and (3) few, if any, attempts have been made to quantify the degree to which implicit bias, particularly in light of explicit biases, impacts behavior.

 1.    The Implicit Association Test is Flawed

Some scholars and commentators have relied on the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to diagnose an individual’s implicit biases. The problem is that the IAT is flawed in many respects.

To begin with, the IAT sets arbitrary cutoff scores to determine whether an individual’s responses reveal implicit biases, yet fails to provide any assessments of the differences, if any, between the many individuals who score above or below those cutoffs.[1] Additionally, IAT scores are arguably context-dependent, as the IAT produces different results for individuals when they complete the test multiple times.[2] Furthermore, the IAT fails to meaningfully distinguish between implicit and explicit bias. As one scholar explains, “the IAT provides little insight into who will discriminate against whom, and provides no more insight than explicit measures of bias.”[3] One commentator states as follows:

The IAT is impacted by explicit attitudes, not just implicit attitudes … It is impacted by people’s ability to process information quickly on a general level. It is impacted by desires to want to create a good impression. It is impacted by the mood people are in. If the measure is an amalgamation of many things (one of which is purportedly implicit bias), how can we know which of those things is responsible for a (weak) correlation with behavior?[4]

To be sure, one scholar acknowledged that “what we don’t know is whether the IAT and measures like the IAT can predict behavior over and above corresponding questionnaires of what we could call explicit measures or explicit attitudes.[5]

2.    Neither the Implicit Association Test Nor The Presence of Implicit Bias Reliably Predicts Biased Behavior

Empirical studies suggest that implicit biases do not predict biased behavior. Indeed, one researcher acknowledged that the IAT “cannot predict behavior at the level of an individual.”[6]  In fact, the evidence shows precisely the opposite:

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Harvard, and the University of Virginia examined 499 studies over 20 years involving 80,859 participants that used the IAT and other, similar measures. They discovered two things: One is that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought. They also conclude that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior. These findings, they write, "produce a challenge for this area of research.[7]

Additionally, researchers recently “examined 63 studies that explicitly considered a link between changes in bias and changes in actions … [but] they found no evidence of a causal relationship."[8] Put simply, very few, if any, sociological or psychological studies have established with any degree of reliability that implicit bias directly or proximately caused biased, or discriminatory, behavior. As one social psychologist explains:

Almost everything about implicit bias is controversial in scientific circles. It is not clear, for instance, what most implicit bias methods actually measure; their ability to predict discrimination is modest at best; their reliability is low; early claims about their power and immutability have proven unjustified.[9]

This is not to say, of course, that implicit bias does not exist, or that it does not have a material impact on biased behavior. It is to say, however, that the IAT – and evidence supporting a connection between implicit bias and biased behavior – is, at best, premature and, at worst, untenable. As two prominent scholars explain:

[M]uch murkiness surrounds (a) the proper causal explanation for alleged IAT effects, (b) the psychological meaning of IAT scores, (c) the statistical generality and potency of alleged relations between IAT scores and actual behavior, and (d) boundary conditions on alleged IAT effects.[10]

What’s more, even where researchers have claimed to reduce implicit biases, they found no concomitant reduction in biased behavior. That fact alone should cause scholars who have championed implicit bias to think that, just maybe, they have jumped the proverbial gun.

3.    Few, If Any, Attempts Have Been Made to Quantify Implicit Bias’s Impact on Biased Behavior

Assuming arguendo that implicit bias impacts biased behavior, scholars have made little, if any, attempt to quantify implicit bias’s impact on biased behavior. For example, is implicit bias responsible for 5%, 10%, 20%, or 50% (or more) of biased behaviors? This is particularly problematic given that the presence of other factors, such as explicit biases and prejudices, directly impact biased decision-making. This flaw should not be surprising. After all, if implicit bias is the product of unconscious – and thus involuntary – actions, it would appear difficult for researchers to credibly claim that they possess the ability to reliably measure and quantify a phenomenon that resides outside of their conscious awareness. But without attempting to do so, reliance on implicit bias as a predictor of biased conduct raises more questions than answers.

The research cited above is merely a sample of the articles that have cast doubt on the nexus between implicit bias and biased behavior. To be sure, the point of this article is not to say that implicit bias bears no relationship to biased behavior. It is to say, however, that the evidence for such a relationship is inconclusive, contested, and, quite frankly unpersuasive. As such, the adoption of programs in universities and corporations that strive to educate students and employees on the allegedly negative effects of implicit bias is, at best, premature and, at worst, misguided. What’s more, relevant research has produced “little evidence that implicit bias can be changed long term, and even less evidence that such changes lead to changes in behavior.”[11]

Ultimately, eradicating discrimination, addressing inequality, and ensuring equal opportunity are moral imperatives. The question, however, is how best to do that.

 

[1] See Azar, B. (2008). IAT: Fad or Fabulous. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/07-08/psychometric.

[2] See id.

[3] Bartlett, T. (2017). Can We Really Measure Implicit Bias? Maybe Not. Retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Can-We-Really-Measure-Implicit/238807.

[4] Lopez, G. (2017). For Years This Popular Test Measured Anyone’s Racial Bias. But It Might Not Work After All. Retrieved from: https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/3/7/14637626/implicit-association-test- racism.

[5] Id.

[6] Lee Jussim, Mandatory Implicit Bias Training is a Bad Idea (2017), available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rabble-rouser/201712/mandatory-implicit-bias-training-is-bad-idea.

[7] Bartlett, supra note 3, retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Can-We-Really-Measure-Implicit/238807.

[8] Brandie Jefferson, Change the Bias, Change the Behavior? Maybe Bot (Aug. 2019), available at: https://source.wustl.edu/2019/08/change-the-bias-change-the-behavior-maybe-not/

[9] Jussim, supra note 6, available at:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rabble-rouser/201712/mandatory-implicit-bias-training-is-bad-idea.

[10] Gregory Mitchell & Philip Tetlock, Antidiscrimination Law and the Perils of Mindreading. 67 Ohio St. L. J. 1023- 1121 (2006).

[11] University of Arkansas, Research Questions Link Between Unconscious Bias and Behavior (July 2019), available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/07/190701144324.htm.

March 14, 2021 in Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Illinois Follows Nebraska’s Lead in Pairing Law Student Research Fellows and Pro Bono Attorneys

As all appellate practitioners know, legal research takes a great deal of practice.  Unfortunately, we never have quite enough time to assign extra research projects in law school, and all students can benefit from more research experience.  Meanwhile, many practitioners would be much more willing to take on pro bono clients if the practitioners did not have to devote significant time to new research for pro bono matters.  Illinois has a new program to connect law student researchers and pro bono attorneys.  

The Public Interest Law Initiative in Illinois recently launched a program to allow upper division law students to provide research assistance to attorneys offering pro bono services.  https://pili.org/news/pili-launches-illinois-pro-bono-research-alliance/.  As PILI Executive Director Michael Bergmann explained, the Pro Bono Research Alliance works “in coordination with our law school partners to help further engage law students in providing pro bono services and to remove barriers for providing pro bono legal services to those in need.”  Id.  The Research Alliance provides wonderful support for attorneys who might have “hesitated in accepting a pro bono matter that . . . would require significant research” or involves an area of law outside the attorney’s regular area of practice.  Id.  The Research Alliance program “is totally free and is meant to be a useful resource to make pro bono work easier for attorneys, while simultaneously providing law students with valuable experience.”  Id.

PILI’s program “matches student volunteers from Illinois’ law schools with attorneys from across the state.”  https://pili.org/news/pili-launches-illinois-pro-bono-research-alliance/  Research assignments can range “from those taking only a few hours, to larger projects that may last the course of a semester,” and can help with “any non-fee generating civil legal matter where legal services are being provided on a pro bono basis as defined in Illinois Supreme Court Rule 756(f)(1).”  Id.  Accordingly, private pro bono attorneys, legal aid organizations, and nonprofits can use the research assistance. 

Right now, the PILI program has slots for five students per law school (Illinois has nine law schools), but “[i]f the project garners enough interest, PILI will open the program to more law students at a later date.”  Penelope Bremmer,  PILI Launches Pro Bono Research Alliance for Law Students and Attorneys, https://www.2civility.org/pili-launches-pro-bono-research-alliance (Mar. 4, 2021).

Illinois modeled its Alliance on the similar University of Nebraska College of Law program.  See https://law.unl.edu/ProBonoResearch/.  Nebraska College of Law’s Pro Bono Research Fellows Program “is a free service for attorneys in need of research assistance on pro bono legal matters,” and “provides law students and attorneys with an opportunity to work together to provide legal assistance for someone in the community who cannot afford it. “  Id.  Nebraska Research Fellows can also help with more than research in some circumstances, always with oversight from the College of Law.  Id. 

Both programs stress the goal of encouraging “more practicing attorneys to engage in pro bono work, while simultaneously providing students with valuable experience” and “an opportunity to build their professional network[s].”   See id.  Kudos to Illinois and Nebraska for helping more underserved clients access legal services, and for engaging law students in this valuable work.

March 13, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Tips for Delivering A Persuasive Closing Statement

Closing argument is among the most critical parts of a trial, as it provides attorneys with one final opportunity to persuade the jury to rule in their favor. Below are tips to maximize the persuasive value of a closing argument.

Begin with a strong introduction. As with opening statements, the best closing statements begin with a powerful – and memorable – introduction. And the best closing statements repeat, in the introduction, the theme that was used in the opening statement, remind the jury of the strongest facts supporting a verdict for your client, and reinforce the weakest aspects of your adversary’s case.

Repeat the Rule of Three from the opening. In the closing, you should repeat the Rule of Three (i.e., the three strongest reasons supporting a verdict in your favor) that was used in the opening statement and add to the explanation of each point the evidence elicited on direct and cross-examination that supports each of the three points. Simply put, your goal should be to ensure continuity and cohesion throughout the presentation of your case. By following the same structure in your opening and closing (e.g., repeating the theme and rule of three), you simplify the argument for the jury and remind the jury of the strongest points justifying a ruling for your client.

Show emotion and passion. Never deliver your closing argument in a monotone or disinterested manner. Show appropriate emotion. Argue with passion. After all, if you aren’t passionate and emotional about your client’s case, how are you going to persuade the jury to rule in your favor?

Never read the closing. Your goal during the closing should be to relate to the jury. You want the jury to like you and trust you. Thus, speak directly to the jury in an authentic and conversational tone. If you read your closing, you create an artificial – and detrimental – distance between yourself and the jury and, in so doing, you minimize the persuasive value of your arguments. Remember that an excellent closing argument is as much about performance as it is about substance.

Address the weaknesses in your case. Before delivering your closing, put yourself in the shoes of the jurors. What questions would you have about the merits of your case? What weaknesses would you identify? When you identify such questions and weaknesses, address them in the closing. In so doing, you give yourself the opportunity to explain why these weaknesses should not affect the outcome or remedy you seek, and you establish your credibility with the jury.

Discuss the evidence in detail but do so in a manner that tells a story. The best attorneys know how to tell a compelling story at trial. They know how to capture and hold the jury’s attention. They highlight favorable facts and explain away unfavorable facts. And in the closing, the best attorneys use the testimony elicited at trial to complete their story, reinforce the theme and the Rule of Three, and make a passionate case for a ruling in their client's favor. The best attorneys also know what not to do: never merely summarize the evidence. Don’t feel the need to discuss the testimony of every witness. Instead, emphasize and highlight the evidence most favorable to your client and structure your presentation in a manner that compliments your theme (and Rule of Three), and convinces the jury to rule for your client.

Use non-verbal techniques. When delivering your closing, remember that jurors want to see you as a relatable human being who has compassion, decency, and common sense. To establish relatability, you should use strategic movements. For example, move to a different space when discussing each rule of three, even if it is merely a couple of feet. Vary your tone and voice projection. Maintain an open stance, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Use facial expressions and hand gestures to emphasize important points. Your goal is to be authentic, not rehearsed, and convincing, not contrived. And most importantly, be confident, because confidence is everything.

End powerfully. Make your last words your best and most memorable. Your objective is to make sure that the most important points supporting your case stick in the jurors’ memories. Thus, your last sentence or paragraph should impact the jurors’ emotions and sense of justice. It should state with simplicity and uncompromising conviction the reason why you should win. For example, in the O.J. Simpson trial, attorney Johnny Cochran stated, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” People still remember that line today. And for good reason.

Ultimately, attorneys should remember that a closing argument, like any other aspect of a trial, is a performance. It is not merely a presentation of the evidence and an analysis of the facts. It is a uniquely human endeavor.  Thus, your performance, including your likeability, relatability, and authenticity, will matter as much, if not more, than the evidence itself.

February 28, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Overprepare. Don't Over-Rehearse.

As the calendar turns to February, the stress of moot court teams preparing for their competitions is palpable in law schools around the country. Students spend countless hours in practices to ensure they are ready on the day of the competition. Often, they spend countless additional hours wallowing in self-doubt over their preparation. Did I do enough to get ready? Have I structured my argument in the most persuasive manor possible? Is practicing more better for me, or should I relax and try to get some rest before the big day?

To those nervous advocates, I offer a simple mantra. Overprepare. Don’t over-rehearse.

By overprepare, I mean that advocates should always strive to be ready for the competition as early as possible. Moot court practice is often psychologically painful. Early practices are invariably embarrassing, as a guest judge is almost certain to ask a question the advocates never considered, catching them flat-footed as they grasp for an answer. But this experience need not feel embarrassing. In fact, it’s the whole point. Practice should expose advocates to as many views of the case as possible, allowing them to feel comfortable that, on the day of the argument, there’s nothing truly unexpected that any questioner can throw at them. The early stumbles are necessary signs of growth. And the earlier they occur, the more likely advocates will be able to adjust their presentation and prepare themselves to answer the difficult questions. Those stressful moments expose the gaps in logic that must be resolved before making an effective argument. Advocates should overprepare by starting early, soliciting challenging views whenever possible, and testing out a litany of analytical approaches while staying in character to see what feels most natural, candid, and convincing.

But advocates should not over-rehearse. There is a fine line between learning how to explain the nuances of the problem and the logical gaps of one’s position and memorizing a stilted script to present to a new group of judges. Advocates must avoid the temptation to generate precisely-phrased responses to each possible question. Often, this leads advocates to fall back on a script during argument. That script builds a wall between the advocate and their audience. It forces the advocate to offer stock, generalized answers to judges’ questions, rather than internalizing the questions, processing their nuances, and offering genuine, original responses that fully addresses the judges’ concerns.

One method to overprepare without over-rehearsing is to catalogue some of the most difficult questions faced in practices, jot them down in a deck of note cards, then mix the deck and practice responding to the questions in random order—no matter where they fall in a planned outline of the issues. This will force advocates to provide original responses to the questions in order to weave their presentation back into the original argument structure. Rather than generating canned responses, the advocate will deepen their neural network around the problem, recognizing the relationships between issues and concepts and learning to tack between them smoothly. That mental pliability is a learned skill, not an innate talent. It takes a great deal of preparation, but it can be mastered by anyone willing to put in the necessary effort. And it cannot be reduced to a scripted series of rehearsed answers.

Advocates often work harder in moot court preparation than they have in almost any other aspect of law school. But concerns about perfection can lead them to work in counter-productive ways. A perfectly-scripted answer is not the goal. Instead, advocates must aim to deepen their understanding of each issue so they can comfortably respond in unique ways to each uniquely nuanced question they face. Overpreparation with that goal in mind, while avoiding over-rehearsing, will lead to an argument performance that will make any nagging moot court coach proud.

February 23, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Tips for Delivering A Persuasive Opening Statement

Opening statements are among the most critical aspects of a trial. Indeed, the opening statement provides attorneys with the opportunity to, among other things, make an excellent first impression with the jury, highlight the most favorable facts supporting an attorney's argument, and establish trust and credibility with the jury. Below are tips to maximize the persuasive value of an opening statement. 

Begin with a theme. First impressions are critically important, whether it is at a trial, in an interview, or during an audition. For that reason, it is vital to start strong when delivering your opening statement. A powerful beginning, among other things, gets the jury’s attention and establishes your credibility immediately. To ensure that you deliver a persuasive and powerful opening, begin with a theme. A theme is a concise, one-sentence statement that explains what the case is about and, more importantly, why the jury should rule in your favor.

Tell a story. It is critical to tell a compelling and enjoyable story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story should include vivid details and powerful language concerning, among other things, the characters in your story (e.g., the plaintiff and defendant), and the atmosphere within which the events in question occurred. A compelling story helps to personalize your client, enables the jury to visualize (and thus relate to) the relevant events, and enhances your statement’s emotional impact.

Use the Rule of Three. The best opening statements are well-organized and cohesive. One of the best ways to ensure that your opening statement is structured effectively is to use the Rule of Three. Simply put, the Rule of Three provides the jury with three distinct reasons that support a verdict in your favor – and maximizes the persuasive value of your statement. As one commentator explains:

We humans tend to think in triplets. Three is a good number to wrap our mind around, and we see it in all kinds of instances. We tend to remember points best when given in groups of three, we scan visual elements best when they come in threes, and we like to have three options to consider. Think how often three comes up in our society: three little pigs, three strikes, three doors on ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ three competitive quotes. It’s a triordered world out there.[1]

In essence, the Rule of Three “creates simplicity, aids recall and makes your job easier.”[2]

Use demonstrative exhibits. During opening statements, demonstrative exhibits can often be a powerful tool to convey important facts and evidence to the jury in a well-structured, clear, and concise manner. Indeed, such exhibits focus the jury’s attention on the strongest facts and evidence supporting your argument, and can make your opening statement more persuasive and engaging, particularly for jurors that prefer visual images to enhance their understanding of the case.

Keep it simple and understandable. Opening statements should always be delivered using simple and easy-to-understand language. Thus, avoid fancy or esoteric words. Eliminate unnecessary legalese. And be sure to explain complex concepts in a clear and straightforward manner. Otherwise, you will likely lose the jury’s attention and fail to communicate your argument persuasively.

Be likeable, relatable, and credible. Likeability is an integral part of persuasive advocacy. Jurors (and judges) will be more inclined to rule in your favor or give you the benefit of the doubt if they like you. To enhance likeability, do not read your opening statement to the jury. Do not use notes. Instead, speak to the jurors in a conversational tone. Make eye contact and engage the jurors. Smile. Be friendly. Do not talk down to the jurors, attack your adversary, or speak in an overtly hostile manner. If the jurors like you, you will gain trust and credibility, both of which are essential to maximizing the persuasive value of your arguments.

Use non-verbal techniques. Non-verbal techniques are an essential part of effective advocacy. Such tecnhniques include, but are not limited to, avoiding speaking in a monotone and overly formalistic way. Instead, vary your tone and pace to emphasize important facts. Show authentic emotion. Use hand gestures and different facial expressions. Do not stand in one place for the entirety of your opening statement. And do not act in any manner that can be perceived as contrived and disingenuous. Effective non-verbal techniques contribute immeasurably to showing the jury that you are a genuine and relatable person -- and increase your openig statement's persuasive impact.

Confront unfavorable facts. Do not avoid facts that are unfavorable to your case. Instead, confront those facts in your opening statement and explain why such facts do not and should not affect the outcome or remedy you seek. If you fail to confront unfavorable facts, you can be certain that your adversary will, and when that happens, your credibility will be undermined substantially.

Avoid including unnecessary or irrelevant facts and explanations. Your opening statement should capture the jury’s attention from the first sentence and keep the jury’s attention until you conclude. To accomplish this, and to maximize persuasive impact, the opening statement must be interesting, engaging, and, at times, captivating. As such, avoid including unnecessary or irrelevant facts and explanations. Make sure that your statement is not too lengthy, unduly repetitive, ineffectively organized, or plain boring. Otherwise, you risk losing the jury’s attention – and your case.

End strong. The end of your opening statement is equally as important as the beginning. Your goal should be to reinforce the theme, maximize emotional impact, and highlight in a memorable way the strongest facts and evidence supporting your argument. Ask yourself, “what is the last and most important thing that I want the jurors to hear before they deliberate?” After all, a poor and unpersuasive ending can affect negatively the manner in which the jurors assess your arguments and, ultimately, diminish significantly your likelihood of success.

 

[1] Paul Luvera, “The Importance of a Trial Theme and the Rule of Three” (Jan. 16, 2011), available at: The immportance [sic] of a trial theme&the rule of three – Plaintiff Trial Lawyer Tips (internal citation omitted).

[2] Id.

February 13, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Using Zoom’s Choose-You-Own-Breakout-Room Option for Teaching Brief Writing

While some courts and law schools have returned to a form of in-person proceedings, many of us are still doing our best to represent clients or help students on Zoom.  If you are struggling with Zoom, check out Briar Goldberg’s Ted Ideas on how to raise your video skills.  Briar Goldberg, Ted Ideas:  7 Zoom mistakes you might still be making, https://ideas.ted.com/7-zoom-mistakes-you-might-still-be-making-and-how-to-raise-your-video-skills/ (Feb 9, 2021).

Additionally, if your spring involves teaching students to write trial or appellate briefs in pairs, Zoom now allows your students to select breakout rooms with their partners.  See https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/115005769646.  I was hesitant to use this feature because I know students cannot always select their own room, especially students using iPads and some Chromebooks.  See Clay Gibney, Tips for Zoom Breakout Rooms - Lessons Learned, https://www.sais.org/page/zoom_breakout_rooms  (Nov. 2020).  Like many Zoom hosts, I avoided the feature, and either spent the significant time needed to pre-assign participants to breakout rooms or let Zoom randomly assign participants to rooms.  

However, if you want students to be able to meet and confer with their brief-writing partners during class, even in a larger class, you should give the choose-your-own-breakout-room option a try.  I teach writing classes without a “Zoom TA” or IT person in the class, and yet I have sent my students to self-selected breakout rooms for partner meetings.  For the best results, assign your student pairs breakout room numbers before class and ask in advance for names of students whose devices do not show the room choices.

Assigning Pair Numbers

When I assigned my students into partner pairs, I listed each pair on an Excel sheet with numbered lines, and saved the sheet to our class Google Drive.  Before our first class using the partner meeting breakout rooms, I asked each student to double check the Excel sheet and make sure they knew their pair’s number.   

Then, to make creating the rooms quick and simple during class, I did not take the time to name the breakout rooms.  I simply asked Zoom to create the same number of self-selecting breakout rooms as my number of student pairs.  In other words, for a class of 30 students, I created 15 choose-your-own-breakout rooms numbered 1 to 15. 

Dealing with iPads, Chromebooks, and Web Zoom

Early in the semester, I had the students practice choosing their own breakout rooms during a persuasive writing exercise.  We learned that about twenty percent of my students could not select their own rooms, either because of their Chromebook or iPad devices, the way they access Zoom, or both.  See generally Gibney, Tips for Zoom Breakout Rooms, https://www.sais.org/page/zoom_breakout_rooms, at 2 (explaining students using the Web version of Zoom cannot select their own rooms). 

When I let the students know they would need their pair numbers for our next class, I also asked them to notify me before class if their device did not allow them to choose their own breakout rooms.  Therefore, I had a handy list and was able to quickly send these students to the proper rooms by manually assigning them. 

Several students told me after class that they really enjoyed the time in partner breakout rooms.  As much as we wish we could teach partner pairs to write briefs together in person, Zoom’s self-selecting breakout rooms at least allow us the chance to let the students meet together during class.

Happy Zooming!

February 13, 2021 in Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 23, 2021

A New Example of a Persuasive Introduction and Statement of Facts

Many 1L legal writing professors begin the second semester using their favorite examples of persuasive writing.  In addition to exercises on CRAC for crafting persuasive Argument sections, I use samples to show my students two key persuasive techniques:  (1) catching a reader’s interest with a “hook” in the Introduction; and (2) using persuasive subheadings and fact presentations in the Statement of Facts.  I have several great samples, including the well-known example from skater Tonya Harding’s International Olympic Committee filing.  Harding’s lawyers introduced her request to be allowed to skate in the Olympics in three compelling words:  “Tonya Harding skates.”   

Of course, I am always looking for new samples.  Many thanks to Professor Sarah Ricks, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School, for recently suggesting Legal Writing Institute List-Serv members read the beautifully-written Statement of Facts in an Opposition filed on behalf of Amazon Web Services in the Parler matter.  In the Opposition to Parler’s Motion for a TRO, counsel for AWS, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, uses plain language to engage the reader in the first line, and follows the Introduction with a truly persuasive Statement of Facts.  See AWS Opp. to Parler's TRO Request.  The Introduction and Statement of Facts from this January 12, 2021 filing are excellent examples of persuasive writing, albeit based on extremely troubling fact allegations.

Just as we instruct our students to do, the AWS Opposition begins its Introduction with short persuasive sentences catching the reader’s interest and summarizing AWS’s arguments in a straightforward matter:

This case is not about suppressing speech or stifling viewpoints.  It is not about a conspiracy to restrain trade.  Instead, this case is about Parler’s demonstrated unwillingness and inability to remove from the servers of Amazon Web Services (AWS) content that threatens the public safety, such as by inciting and planning the rape, torture, and assassination of named public officials and private citizens. 

Id. at 2.  The Introduction then presents AWS’s claims without hyperbole, and distills the heart of AWS’s argument to one sentence, arguing Parler attempts to compel “AWS to host content that plans, encourages, and incites violence.”  Id.

The Opposition continues with a Statement of Facts deftly using subheadings to summarize the facts and its overall argument.  As we know, judges are incredibly busy, and advocates should use persuasive subheadings in Statements of Facts as a way to help busy judges understand the key facts from reading the Table of Contents or from skimming the brief.  See generally https://legalblogwatch.typepad.com/legal_blog_watch/2012/02/federal-judges-want-you-to-spare-them-the-rhetoric-and-get-to-the-point.html (noting a Bankruptcy Court judge’s complaint judges “don’t have time for rhetoric” as they are “really, really busy”).  The AWS Opposition Statement of Facts uses four brief subheadings to paint an overall picture of Parler as unwilling to limit disturbing content in violation of its contract with AWS:

  1. Parler Conducts the “Absolute Minimum” of Content Moderation.
  2. Parler Enters an Agreement with AWS for Web Hosting Services.
  3. Parler Repeatedly Violates the Agreement.
  4. AWS Exercises Its Right to Suspend Parler’s Account.

AWS Opp. to Parler's TRO Request at 2-5. 

Finally, the Statement of Facts employs bullet points and quotes from the record to show Parler’s alleged abuses with precision.  It takes only a few minutes to read the Statement of Facts, but AWS’s summary of the underlying matter stays with the reader.  While some of the impact is no doubt based on the quoted Parler posts inciting sedition, rape, and murder, the calm, plain English structure and direct word choice also convey credibility and tell a compelling story.  For example, under the subheading about content moderation, the Statement of Facts explains, “Parler prides itself on its hands-off approach to moderating user content,” followed by six supporting quotes from Parler executives.  The quotes include sentences like, “’what we’ve decided to do is, let’s just not do any curation, no fact checking, let people do that on their own.’”  Id. at 2-3.  This method paints a clear picture of AWS’s fact contentions and persuades the reader AWS has accurately and carefully given us the whole story.

As appellate practitioners and writing teachers, we all benefit from reading each others’ work.  I appreciate the suggestion from Prof. Ricks that we read the Statement of Facts in the AWS Opposition to Parler’s Request for a TRO, and I hope you also enjoy the brief’s persuasive writing. 

January 23, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 2, 2021

More Support for Oxford, or Serial, Commas

Many of my younger students come from collegiate writing programs which do not use Oxford commas.  These students sometimes need convincing they should add what seems like an “extra” comma between the last two items in a series of three or more.  This comma, known as a serial or Oxford comma, can change meaning.  Therefore, I include the comma on my grading rubric and try to make my lessons about the comma connect to real-world examples as much as possible.

The dairy delivery drivers who won overtime pay because of a missing Oxford comma provide a great example of the comma’s utility.  See https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/15/health/oxford-comma-maine-court-case-trnd/index.html.  Many of us are familiar with the dairy drivers’ case, and their 2018 $5,000,000 settlement.  The dairy's delivery contract clause on overtime wages did not include a serial comma, and thus did not limit the drivers' eligibility for some overtime pay.  Along with a few fun, albeit morbid, memes about eating children and other relatives—"Let’s eat children” vs. “Let’s eat, children,” for example—I use the dairy case to help show the need for precision and punctuation.  (For more laughs, really, I highly recommend one of my family’s favorite books:  Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003), https://www.lynnetruss.com/books/eats-shoots-leaves/.)

Recently, Kelly Gurnett, an admitted “diehard Oxford comma loyalist,” updated her piece on the dairy drivers.  Kelly Gurnett, A Win for the Oxford Comma: This Lawsuit Shows Why It’s So Important (updated Nov. 2, 2020), https://thewritelife.com/is-the-oxford-comma-necessary/.  As Gurnett explains, “For anyone who’s ever wondered what all the fuss is about over Oxford commas, the circuit judge’s [dairy drivers’ pay] opinion says it all: ‘For want of a comma, we have this case.’”  Id. 

While modern courts sometimes say they want to use more holistic and less formal language, we still must be precise and clear in contracts and legal writing.  As Gurnett concludes:  “if there’s one thing writers can agree on, it’s the importance of clarity. In some cases, an extra comma matters.”  Id.

Last week, Pocket republished Chris Stokel-Walker’s article on serial commas.  Chris Stokel-Walker, The Commas That Cost Companies Millions (July 22, 2018), https://getpocket.com/explore/item/the-commas-that-cost-companies-millions?utm_source=pocket-newtab.  In the BBC Worklife piece, Stokel-Walker discusses the dairy drivers and other historic Oxford comma litigation, and notes the often-debated meaning of commas in insurance policies.  As Stokel-Walker says, “for some, contentious commas can be a path to the poor house.”  Id.  He provides great examples to remind us about the need for precision.

First, Stokel-Walker cites the United States Tariff Act.  As originally drafted in 1870, the Tariff Act exempted “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation,” from import tariffs.  However, “for an unknown reason, when revised two years later, a stray comma sneaked in between ‘fruit’ and ‘plants,’” and “[s]uddenly all tropical and semi-tropical fruits could be imported without any charge.”  Id.  Congress ultimately revised the language, but the US lost $2,000,000 in tariffs (now about $40,000,000) in the meantime.  Id.

Unlike my memes showing the errors in comma-less clauses about eating children or cooking grandpa, in the most extreme example Stokel-Walker cites, debate over comma placement was at the heart of a real-life death-penalty trial.  Id.  In 1916, the British government hanged Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist, under the 1351 Treason Act.  Casement “incited Irish prisoners of war being held in Germany to band together to fight against the British.”  Id.  As Stokel-Walker explains, the case revolved around “the wording of the 14th Century Treason Act and the use of a comma: with it, Casement’s actions in Germany were illegal,” but if the court would read the act without the possibly-mistaken comma, Casement would be free.  Id.  Casement’s argument at trial was that “'crimes should not depend on the significance’” of commas, and if guilt for a hanging offense really depended on a comma, then the court should read the statute for the accused, and not the Crown.  Id.  Unfortunately for Casement, the court applied the comma and ordered him executed.

Whether we use the dairy drivers, memes, or Roger Casement’s matter, those of us teaching and mentoring new legal writers should do our best to convince them the Oxford comma is not “extra,” and can dramatically change meaning.

Happy new year!

January 2, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Power of The Rule of Three

Law professors, lawyers, and judges have spent countless hours, whether in law review articles, textbooks, at conferences, or in continuing legal education sessions, providing advice regarding legal writing skills, legal analysis, brief-writing, and persuasive advocacy.

Yet, despite this helpful and practical guidance, law students often struggle to develop effective persuasive writing skills. Law graduates – and seasoned lawyers – frequently face criticism of their writing skills, and judges often lament the less-than-persuasive nature of many pleadings, motions, and briefs. And for good reason. Many trial and appellate briefs, for example, lack a cohesive structure, fail to tell a compelling story, lack precision and concision, violate grammatical rules, contain unnecessary repetition and information, and simply fail to convince the reader to rule in favor of the drafter’s argument.

Having said that, for law students and lawyers who seek to immediately and significantly improve the persuasive value of their briefs, there is one strategy that you should adopt from this day forward: The Rule of Three.

The Rule of Three is simple yet incredibly effective. In the Introduction (or Summary of Argument) section of your brief – and throughout your brief -- identify three specific reasons (and only three reasons) supporting the relief or outcome you seek. And state these reasons with specificity, clarity, and conciseness using First…Second…Third…

Here is an example:

***

Defendant – a well-known tabloid that lacks journalistic integrity – defamed the plaintiff when defendant published an article – to an audience of over one million readers – stating that the plaintiff “was a pathetic attorney who didn’t know the law, preyed on the vulnerabilities of unsuspecting clients, stole their money, engaged in unlawful hiring practices, and repeatedly made inappropriate advances to several clients.”

The defendant’s comments were defamatory for three reasons.  First, the defamatory statements are false. Second, the defamatory statements damaged severely the plaintiff’s reputation and standing in the legal community. Third, the defamatory statements caused the plaintiff to suffer substantial, ongoing, and irreversible, harm.

***

After stating the three reasons supporting the remedy you seek, you should dedicate the next three paragraphs (in the Introduction or Summary of Argument) to relying on the relevant facts or evidence that support each reason. Thus, for example, you should draft one paragraph explaining why the statements were false. Then, you should draft a second paragraph explaining why the statements damaged the plaintiff’s reputation and standing in the legal community. Thereafter, you should draft a paragraph explaining why the plaintiff suffered reputational and economic harm. After that, draft a one-sentence conclusion stating “For these reasons, the defendant’s article was defamatory and thus entitles the plaintiff to damages.” Done.

Also, make sure that your point headings track the three reasons you identify at the outset of your brief. Doing so ensures that your brief will be cohesive, well-organized, and easy to read.

Why is the Rule of Three so effective?

1.    The Rule of Three simplifies your arguments

Judges are very busy. They want to know – quickly – what you want and why you should get it. Briefs that confuse judges or make judges struggle to discern your legal arguments damage your credibility and reduce the persuasive value of your brief.

The Rule of Three avoids this problem. It makes it easy for judges to identify your arguments and evaluate the evidence in support of those arguments. As such, the judge will like you for making his or her job easier. The judge will view you as a credible attorney and give you the benefit of the doubt throughout the litigation. And, ultimately, your client will thank you when you win the case.

2.    The Rule of Three organizes your arguments

The worst briefs are often those that go on…and on…and on…

The worst briefs read like a rambling manifesto that contains a barrage of loosely related thoughts that are jammed into long paragraphs with no separation of the concepts, arguments, or allegations. In short, it is chaos. It is easier to navigate one’s way out of a forest or maze than it is to navigate the arguments that such briefs present.  

The Rule of Three eliminates this problem. It’s quite simple. Say, “First…” and state your argument. Say, “Second…” and state your argument. Say, “Third…” and state your argument. Then, in the next three paragraphs, explain each argument in a separate paragraph – and include each argument as a point heading. Doing so ensures that your arguments will be organized and presented clearly, understandably, and effectively.   

3.    The Rule of Three appeals to the audience’s cognition and psychology

Let’s face it: listening is hard. Paying attention for a prolonged period is difficult. Remembering what we have heard is often challenging. So how do you draft a brief or make an oral argument that will maintain the audience’s attention and convince the audience to adopt your position?

Studies in social and cognitive psychology demonstrate that people respond positively and attentively to arguments that are delivered in sets of three.

The rule of three is ubiquitous. Humans are both neurologically and culturally adapted to the number three and its combination of brevity and rhythm. We know from studies in neuroscience that our brains seek out patterns and finds the structure of three to be a complete set; it feels whole. Three is the least number of items in a series that make a pattern, and once you start looking for this pattern, you’ll see that it’s everywhere.  In mathematics it’s a rule that allows you to solve problems based on proportions. In science there are three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. The Latin maxim omne trium perfectum (everything that comes in threes is perfection) echoes Aristotle and his Ars Rhetorica. There Aristotle posits that the most persuasive rhetorical appeals must rely on ethos, pathos, and logos. Extrapolate from that, and even simple storytelling and narratives have a simple structure of a beginning, a middle and an end.[1]

Simply put, the Rule of Three embeds a cohesive structure into your arguments that enhance their readability, appeal, and persuasive value.

Ultimately, the Rule of Three reflects the principle that legal communication (and communication generally) is less complex than you think. It’s about common sense. Use the Rule of Three in your briefs and oral arguments. It’s that simple – and very effective.

Below are a few videos regarding the Rule of Three.

(1) The Rule of Three: a top speechwriter explains... - YouTube

The Rule of Three - A Law of Effective Communication - YouTube

(1) Steve Jobs: 3 Lessons From The Keynote Master - YouTube

 

[1] Brad Holst, Want Your Presentation to Be Memorable? Follow the Rule of Three, available at: Want Your Presentation to Be Memorable? Follow the Rule of Three (mandel.com)

December 26, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Tips for Zoom Court & Moot Court: Follow In-Person Best Practices Even More Closely

Tired of online court, school, happy hour, family holidays, and more?  Me too.  However, we also know some form of virtual court is here to stay, and based on the number of great pointers judges from across the county have shared with us this month, we can all still improve. 

Moreover, in reflecting on the tips I’ve seen lately, I was struck by how many of these pointers apply to any argument, in-person or virtual, and how they track what we have long told law students in moot court.  As we evolve from a largely in-person court system, where we had some telephonic and online conferences, to our future, which could involve many more electronic appearances, we should not lose sight of those moot court pointers from law school. And for those of us teaching oral advocacy, we should remember to share best practices for preparation and professionalism which will serve our students in any argument, online or in-person.

Recently, Judge Pierre Bergeron shared helpful tips on preparing for oral argument.  You can see his blog here:  Judge Pierre Bergeron's Tips.  He advises counsel to practice, with a moot court if possible, know the record and case law, provide a roadmap of argument points at the beginning, and be especially cognizant of the need to pause periodically “in an effort to invite questions.”  Id.  These tips apply equally to in-person arguments. 

Similarly, Madison Alder’s piece for Bloomberg Law, Wear Pants, Sequester Pets: Five Tips From Judges for Zoom Court, has excellent advice from judges for online arguments and court appearances in general.  See Madison Alder, Wear Pants, Sequester Pets (Bloomberg Dec. 8, 2020).  As Alder notes, the “virtual venues have worked so well,” some “courts plan on using them long after the virus is gone.”  Id.  Therefore, all lawyers who appear in court need to be as proficient in online argument as they hopefully are for in-person proceedings.

Online court platforms vary (federal courts often do not use Zoom, for example), just like courthouses, and “’Lawyers should prepare themselves for venues they’re not familiar with,’” said Chief Judge William Johnson of the District New Mexico.  See id.  Thus, “preparing a presentation ahead of time is still crucial.”  Id.  Just as in traditional courthouses, counsel should practice standing at a podium or sitting and looking directly at a webcam.  See id.  I advise my students to distill their oral argument notes to just one piece of paper, supported by one binder of organized cases and record pages to take to the podium, and that format works well online, where paper shuffling can be magnified on Zoom. 

Somehow, despite myriad reminders to dress professionally, we still hear frequent complaints from the bench about attorney attire.  Alder recommends:  “Dressing properly means wearing professional attire from head to toe, not just head to waist.”  Id.  “’You never know when you’ll need to stand up in a pinch, which can make for an embarrassing moment if you’re wearing shorts,’ Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke said.”  Id.  The key:  “’Besides the same make-sure-you’re-communicating-well lessons that apply in a courtroom—is remembering that this is a courtroom and a formal proceeding. Zoom can make people less formal,’” Southern District of Texas Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal said.  Id.

We teach law school moot court advocates not to read from notes, allowing them to “read the bench” and make eye contact with judges.  This lesson matters even more for online arguments, where the format makes true eye contact impossible.  To be as present as possible, online lawyers (and students) should “make sure they do things like keeping the dogs in the other room, closing the window if the lawnmower is going, and making sure their children aren’t there,” said Chief Judge Rosenthal.  Id.  

Finally, we all need to be more attentive to virtual context clues in online arguments.  “The virtual platform makes it more important for lawyers to pay attention to the tone of a judge’s voice, Jed Rakoff, a senior judge in the Southern District of New York, said.”  Id.  Tuning in to a judge’s tone is important for lawyers “’because that’s the main remaining clue as to whether they’re scoring or not,’” Rakoff said.  Id.  As Eastern District of California Chief Judge Kimberly Mueller explained, “It’s as important as ever to pay attention to the judge’s signals, so if you are talking too long, be ready to wind up.’”  Id.  And, using Judge Bergeron’s point on pausing to allow questions, online advocates should watch for judges’ body language showing they are about to unmute or ask a question. 

In my house, with two adults working full-time online and a high school student taking online classes while managing a Zoom social and extracurricular schedule, we are weary of an online-only world.  I know many law students and lawyers feel the same way.  But at least we can find a silver lining (in addition to the great commute) from the online court experience, as the skills we must hone for the best online arguments will make us better advocates in-person too.  

Be well!

December 13, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)