Tuesday, July 27, 2021
Professionalism in Legal Writing – Dos & Don’ts, Part IV
The Supreme Court of Ohio, Commission on Professionalism, has published Professionalism Dos & Don’ts: Legal Writing. Each Do and Don’t has several subpoints. Over the next few months, I plan to take a more in-depth look at some of these Dos and Don’ts and offer examples and suggestions for how appellate advocates can implement the Dos and avoid the Don’ts. This is the fourth post in the series.
Do adopt a clear and persuasive style:
- Do put material facts in context.
The facts we select to include in a brief and how we present those facts are important. But which facts should we include, and which should we omit? We must include all legally relevant facts and background facts that are necessary to understand the legally relevant facts. But we also have to present the facts (both good and bad as I discussed in an earlier post) in a way that tells our client’s story effectively and persuasively. And sometimes that means including context or material that makes the story more interesting.
Take this example from a brief filed by now Chief Justice Roberts in State of Alaska v. EPA, No. 02-658:
The Red Dog Mine. For generations, Inupiat Eskimos hunting and fishing in the DeLong Mountains in Northwest Alaska had been aware of orange- and red-stained creek beds in which fish could not survive. In the 1960s, a bush pilot and part-time prospector by the name of Bob Baker noticed striking discolorations in the hills and creek beds of a wide valley in the western DeLongs. Unable to land his plane on the rocky tundra to investigate, Baker alerted the U.S. Geological Survey. Exploration of the area eventually led to the discovery of a wealth of zinc and lead deposits. Although Baker died before the significance of his observations became known, his faithful traveling companion—an Irish Setter who often flew shotgun—was immortalized by a geologist who dubbed the creek Baker had spotted “Red Dog” Creek. Mark Skok, Alaska’s Red Dog Mine: Beating the Odds, Minerals Today, at 8 (June 1991).
The case was about the Clean Air Act, “best available control technology,” and permitting authorities. Adding details about a bush pilot and his dog was a way to make what most would view as a boring case a bit more interesting. And of course, the author tied these details into his argument, at least indirectly, later in the brief.
- Do write in a professional and dignified manner.
Legal writing is professional writing and thus, we should write in a manner that recognizes the importance of our work as writers; and in a way that recognizes the importance of our primary audience—appellate judges. We shouldn’t write in a way that insults our opponents or the court. We must not include ad hominem attacks or sarcasm in our briefs. Attempts at humor should be avoided too—none of us are as funny as we think we are.
I know some (perhaps many) will disagree, but I think it’s ok to use contractions. They make our writing more conversational and less stilted, but not less professional. And start a sentence with and, but, or, or so now and then. Doing so has the same effect.
- Do put citations at the end of a sentence.
We must cite the authorities we rely upon, and we must do so each time that we rely upon them. That’s simple enough. There is some debate, however, about whether citations should be placed in footnotes or the text. I think they should be placed in the text for two reasons. First, judges are used to seeing citations in the text not in footnotes and our job is to make the judge’s job easier. By doing something the judge doesn’t expect or isn’t accustomed to, we make their job more difficult. Second, citations convey more information than just where to find an authority. Citations tell us the value of the authority, i.e., is it binding or persuasive, the age of the authority, etc. Of course, there are ways to convey that information and still use footnotes, but it is easier to just include the citation in the text.
- Do use pinpoint citations when they would be helpful.
They’re always helpful.
 Yes. I used “their” as a singular pronoun. That’s ok too. https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/
Saturday, July 24, 2021
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.
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.
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.
The party was deafening.
The defendant was extraordinarily tired.
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.
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.
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
Justice Cardozo once said that as many as 9 out of 10 legal issues can be resolved by deduction alone. The most useful form of legal deduction is the syllogism, which generally has two premises and a conclusion.
Crack open any book on syllogisms and the author will lead with something like this: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; thus, Socrates is mortal. This is a categorical syllogism, which is by far the most common in the law. A categorical syllogism sets up a broad proposition (all/some/no X are Y), gives an example (all/some/no of group A are X), then concludes that what is universally true must be true in a particular instance of that universal (all/some/none of group A is X). Convincingly using categorical syllogisms in legal analysis is a matter of hitting on the relevant aspects that characterize a class, then showing that your case does or does not fit in that class.
Most appellate arguments and cases can be reduced to syllogisms. As an exercise, take any United States Supreme Court case and try to reduce it to three sentences—a general proposition, a few specific facts showing that this case fits within (or without) that class, then a conclusion that what is true of the class in general is true (or not) of this case. Marbury v. Madison: the Constitution is supreme over laws passed under it; the Judiciary Act of 1789 conflicts with Article III of the Constitution by adding to the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction; therefore, that part of the Judiciary Act conflicting with Article III is void. McCullough v. Maryland: The federal government is supreme over the state governments; if the states could tax the federal government, they would be supreme over it; therefore, the states cannot tax the federal government. Wickard v. Filburn: Congress has the power to regulate both interstate commerce and things affecting interstate commerce; growing one’s own wheat on a farm for personal consumption affects the interstate market for wheat; therefore, Congress can regulate growing one’s own food for personal consumption.
Courts often reduce counsels’ arguments to syllogisms to zero in on points of disagreement. In Blasland, Bouck & Lee v. City of North Miami, North Miami had sued a contractor (Blasland) that it had hired to clean up a Superfund site, believing that the cleanup did not meet federal standards. In a previous lawsuit involving the same site, it had gotten a favorable judgment against other defendants who had met federal standards in their cleanup efforts. The court later offset a judgment against Blasland with the prior judgment, reasoning that North Miami’s recovery would otherwise be duplicative. North Miami appealed, saying that the setoff was improper. The Eleventh Circuit broke down the City’s argument into a series of syllogisms—simplified here—to explain precisely where it believed that the City’s reasoning went awry: 1. Duplicative awards justifying an offset exist only if the recovery in the second suit was available in the first suit; 2. The claim against Blasland was not available in the first suit; 3. Therefore, the award against Blasland was not duplicative and it is not entitled to an offset. The Court held that this argument was a “fine syllogism, with flawlessly connected episyllogisms, but its initial premise is flawed. The flawed premise is that . . . duplication of awards only exists if what has been awarded in the present case rightfully could have been recovered in the prior litigation. That is not [the] law.”
The best attorneys often use syllogisms to the same effect. To illustrate, I looked at briefs from prominent practitioners in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 and 2020. For example, Kannon Shanmugam of Paul, Weiss, used it in a petition for certiorari review in C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. v. Miller, 20-1425 (with citations removed to aid readability):
What is more, the court of appeals badly misconstrued this Court's decision in American Trucking Associations, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles. The court's attenuated chain of reasoning went like this: In American Trucking Associations, the Court stated that the FAAAA's preemption provision “draws a rough line between a government's exercise of regulatory authority and its own contract-based participation in a market.” The FAAAA's preemption provision includes common-law claims. Thus, because Congress also used the term “regulatory authority” in the safety exception, it must also include common-law claims.
He then used that syllogistic framework to attack that reasoning:
That syllogism is multiply flawed. As a preliminary matter, the Court in American Trucking Associations was not interpreting the safety exception-indeed, its only mention of the safety exception was to deem it “not relevant here.” If anything, any hints from American Trucking Associations cut the other way. The governmental action at issue there was a core exercise of the “regulatory authority of a State”: the “Board of Harbor Commissioners” (an administrative agency) enforced a “municipal ordinance” (a positive-law enactment), the violation of which was “a violation of criminal law” (enforced by state or local officials). It is little wonder that the Court described the governmental action there as “regulatory authority.”
Two former members of my office—Tyler Green and Tera Peterson—used it to good effect in an amicus brief supporting Arizona in McKinney v. Arizona, 589 U.S. ____ (2020):
McKinney's argument can be succinctly stated as this syllogism:
- New rules (like Ring) apply to cases on direct review.
- His case is again on direct review because the Arizona Supreme Court's actions after the Ninth Circuit's conditional grant of habeas relief reopened his twenty-year-final judgment.
- Therefore, Ring's new rule applies to his case.
The minor premise in McKinney’s syllogism is invalid. So his conclusion is invalid too. The Arizona Supreme Court did not reopen his case—or transform his final sentence into a non-final one—by correcting a non-Ring error. Concluding otherwise would gut Teague’s finality framework, which protects the States’ criminal judgments from unwarranted federal intrusion. It would make those judgments perpetually subject to reopening: Every conditional habeas grant would force States to relitigate convictions under every new procedural rule decided since the original conviction became final.
Finally, Jeff Fisher of Stanford University included this in his winning brief in Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. ___ (2020) (again, with citations removed):
For decades, this Court has addressed questions like the one here by asking whether the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause “incorporates” the relevant protection of the Bill of Rights. Applying that test, a simple syllogism establishes that the Due Process Clause incorporates the Sixth Amendment's unanimity requirement against the states. First, the Court held long ago that the Jury Trial Clause applies to the states. The Clause is “fundamental to the American scheme of justice.” Second, “if a Bill of Rights protection is incorporated, there is no daylight between the federal and state conduct it prohibits or requires.” This Court first crystallized this concept in Malloy v. Hogan. . . . The Court reiterated this concept in McDonald. . . . Just last Term, this Court reaffirmed this rule without a dissenting vote. . . . .This reasoning controls here.
I could go on. That’s just a sampling of prominent practitioners in the span of a single year. But it makes the point. The syllogism is a powerful tool that each attorney should use not just to think through cases, but to explain their and others’ reasoning.
 Judge Aldisert agrees. Aldisert, Logic for Law Students, 69 U. Pitt. L. Rev. at 2, 12.
 Syllogisms can be complex, with one conclusion becoming a premise in the next, as a stacked set leads (eventually) to the desired conclusion. These are called polysyllogisms and episyllogisms. More often, they are simplified by implying rather than spelling out one of the premises. These are called enthymemes. See, e.g., Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, (2021) (Gorsuch, J., concurring).
 Syllogisms can also be hypothetical or disjunctive. A hypothetical syllogism consists of at least one conditional (if-then) premise that necessarily leads to the conclusion (if X then Y; X; therefore, Y; or if X then Y, if Y then Z, therefore if X then Z). Id. at 34. And a disjunctive syllogism sets up two options (either X or Y), says which one attains (X), then concludes that the other is not (therefore, not Y). Patrick J. Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic 34 (10th ed. 2007).
 Id.; Aldisert, Logic for Law Students, 69 U. Pitt. L. Rev. at 4 (describing syllogistic logic as “[w]hat is true of the universal is true of the particular.”).
 Judge Aldisert advocates for this exercise and gives several examples. Logic for Law Students, 69 U. Pitt. L. Rev. at 4.
 283 F.3d 1286 (11th Cir. 2002).
 Id. at 1295-96.
 Id. at 1296.
Saturday, July 10, 2021
Excellent writers know how to write for their audience, not for themselves.
Imagine that you are a justice on the United States Supreme Court and responsible for deciding whether the word liberty under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause encompasses a right to assisted suicide. In addition to the parties’ briefs, you intend to read over twenty amicus briefs.
What criteria would you use to identify the most persuasive appellate briefs?
The best lawyers know the answer. It’s all about the quality of your writing. And the best writers place themselves in the shoes of the reader.
Below are five writing tips to maximize the persuasive value of your brief.
1. Use plain language
[Too many lawyers believe that] it is essential to legal English that one write as pompously as possible, using words and phrases that have long disappeared from normal English discourse.”
Justice Antonin Scalia
When writing a brief, forget about the words you encountered on the SAT and resist the temptation to sound intelligent by using ‘fancy’ and esoteric words, or legalese. Doing so undermines your credibility and persuasiveness. Write like you are a human being. After all, if you had to read over twenty briefs, would you want to read briefs that required you to consult a dictionary to understand what the advocate was saying? Of course not.
Consider the following example:
As discussed infra, it is axiomatic that the defendant’s words had a deleterious impact upon the plaintiff’s sterling reputation, which as demonstrated herein, was compromised by the invidious invectives hurled at the plaintiff, the effects of which were exacerbated when the defendant repeated these deleterious statements in the local newspaper. Such statements are ipso facto defamatory and, as shown infra, render the plaintiff’s claim meritorious as a matter of fact and law, thus justifying the damages sought herein.
If you were a justice, how would you react to reading this nonsense?
Consider the next example:
The defendant’s statements were defamatory as a matter of law. They were published to a third party. They subjected the plaintiff to scorn and ridicule in the community. They harmed irreparably plaintiff’s reputation. They were made with an intentional disregard for the truth or falsity of the statements. Put simply, the statements represent a textbook case of defamation.
It should be obvious that the second example, although far from perfect, is better than the first.
Be sure to write in a simple and direct style that eliminates ‘fancy,’ esoteric, and unnecessary words, and legalese.
2. Be concise
Most people don't like others who talk too much. Judges are no different.
If you had to read over twenty briefs in a specific case, wouldn’t you favor briefs that were concise, clear, and to the point? Of course.
Thus, in your brief, get to the point immediately. Identify the controlling legal issue. Tell the court what you want (the remedy you seek). Tell the court why you should win (using the relevant facts and legal authority). Omit unnecessary facts and law. Address only relevant counterarguments. Avoid unnecessary repetition and excess words.
Think about it: if you had just read five briefs and then turned to the sixth and final brief that you intended to read that day, wouldn't you want that brief to be concise and wouldn't you want the writer to get to the point quickly? Of course.
3. Capture the court’s attention
Most people dislike boring movies. They dislike boring books. They dislike boring people. And they dislike boring briefs.
Your writing should capture the court’s attention. It should tell a story. It should be entertaining. Consider the following example:
This case is about whether the defendant’s statements defamed the plaintiff. For the reasons that follow, the answer is yes. The defendant’s words were harmful to the plaintiff and published in a widely circulated newspaper. The defendant said these harmful things with little regard for the plaintiff’s reputation. These statements harmed the plaintiff’s reputation in the community and continue to harm the plaintiff’s reputation. As a result, the plaintiff has been damaged. The court should rule for the plaintiff.
That paragraph would probably put most judges to sleep. It almost put me to sleep writing it. Now consider the following example:
On December 8, 2018, the plaintiff’s life changed forever. After purchasing the New Jersey Times, the plaintiff reacted in horror when seeing that the defendant had written an article calling the plaintiff a “horrible human being” who had “sexually assaulted his co-workers and stolen money from his clients.” In the next few days, the plaintiff lost twenty-five percent of his clients. He received threatening emails, including one that said, “I hope you die.” Simply put, the defendant’s statements traumatized the plaintiff, caused irreparable reputational and economic harm, and nearly ruined the plaintiff’s life. The statements are defamatory as a matter of law -- and common sense.
Again, it should be obvious why the second example is better.
An example of a persuasive – and entertaining – brief is Chief Justice John Roberts’s brief in Alaska v. Environmental Protection Agency. All law students should read this brief.
4. Confront the weaknesses in your case and explain why they do not affect the outcome you seek
No one likes a person who is dishonest or evasive.
Likewise, judges do not like advocates who avoid confronting the weaknesses in their arguments. The best advocates acknowledge and confront those weaknesses. They address unfavorable facts and legal authority. And they explain why those weaknesses do not affect the outcome that they seek.
Advocates who omit unfavorable facts or authority lose their credibility with the court and compromise the persuasiveness of their argument. Don’t be one of those advocates.
5. Don’t make ‘red flag’ mistakes
When you're writing a brief, don’t make rookie mistakes. If you do, your credibility – and the persuasiveness of your brief – will be irreparably damaged. Some of these mistakes include:
- Spelling and grammatical errors
- Long sentences (i.e., over twenty-five words)
- Inappropriate language (e.g., “The defendant is, simply put, a jerk and the lower court was clueless and ignorant in failing to realize that.”)
- Extremely long paragraphs (a paragraph should never occupy an entire page)
- Unnecessary emphasis (e.g., avoid bold and italics, and never use an exclamation point at the end of a sentence)
- Demeaning the lower court or your adversary
- Failing to follow the local court rules
- Including too many block quotes
- Citing overruled authority
- Failing to cite unfavorable authority
- Misrepresenting the record
- Citing legal authority incorrectly
- Requesting a remedy that the court has no power to grant
- Telling the court what it must do, rather than respectfully requesting what it should do
Don’t make these mistakes. If you do, you will likely lose your case – and harm your reputation.
Ultimately, when writing a brief, use your common sense. Judges want to know what you want and why you should win, and they want you to explain it simply, concisely, and persuasively.
Simply put, great writers make great advocates.
Friday, July 2, 2021
Each week, the Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup presents a few tidbits of news and Twitter posts from the past week concerning appellate advocacy. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send a quick note to either (1) Dan Real at DReal@Creighton.edu or on Twitter (@Daniel_L_Real) or (2) Catharine Du Bois at DuBoisLegalWriting@gmail.com or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting.
US Supreme Court News and Opinions:
It was a very busy final week of the term for the Supreme Court, with a number of orders and opinions released throughout the week.
On Monday, the Court rejected requests to review two cases concerning the ability of courts to intervene in disputes arising in religious settings, declining to resolve separation of church and state disputes. More from Bloomberg.
Also on Monday, the Court declined to review a lower federal court decision that found a school violated the Constitutional rights of a transgender student when it imposed a policy banning him from using the boys' restroom. More from BuzzFeed.
Also on Monday, the Court struck down barriers to challenging governmental takings of property in federal court, ruling that the "exhaustion requirement" imposed before bringing suit in federal court only requires giving a state agency a chance to weigh in, rather than requiring following all of the agency's administrative procedures. More from Bloomberg.
Also on Monday, the Court vacated an Eighth Circuit opinion and remanded a case involving assertions of excessive force by St. Louis police who restrained an inmate in an incident in which he died. The Court ruled that the appellate court deemed as "insignificant" facts that should have been given consideration in deciding whether to grant summary judgment on the excessive force claim, reviving the claim. More from Courthouse News.
On Tuesday, the Court ruled against a group of noncitizens who had applied for "withholding" relief -- a remedy that involves an exception to the typical action of expeditiously again removing noncitizens who have been removed but are found back in the United States when there is risk of returning them to a country where they might face torture or persecution. More from Scotusblog.
Also on Tuesday, the Court ruled that states cannot stop developers from using the federal government's power of eminent domain to seize property for construction of a natural-gas pipeline through the state. More from Scotusblog.
Also on Tuesday, the Court refused to lift the federal moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving the ban in place until the end of July, as extended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More from Bloomberg.
On Thursday, the Court upheld voting restrictions imposed by Arizona, limiting cases under the Voting Rights Act. The ruling will make it more difficult to contest state-imposed election regulations. More from Scotusblog.
Also on Thursday, the Court struck down a California requirement that charities and nonprofit organizations operating in the state disclose to the state attorney general's office the names and addresses of the organization's largest donors. More from Scotusblog.
On Friday, the Court issued a summary reversal in the case of an Alabama death row inmate who had won habeas corpus relief in the lower court, upending the death row inmate's win. More from Bloomberg.
In the ongoing discussion of whether Justice Breyer will or should consider retiring and allowing President Biden to name and seek confirmation of his replacement, Breyer's friend Kenneth Feinberg writes that Breyer is "at the top of his game" right now. See the piece at Law.com.
Federal Appellate Court News and Opinions:
This week, the Tenth Circuit issued a ruling that mostly upheld Oklahoma's mandatory bar dues as Constitutional. More from Law360.
Appellate Practice Tips and Pointers:
Appellate Twitter provided a couple of great threads this week, with appellate practitioners providing some great thoughts on effective advocacy.
Tobias Loss-Eaton started a thread on Thursday discussing the virtues of doing trial level work and trial level briefs, even if you aspire to some kind of "idealized" practice of high court appellate brief writing, because of the insight and development it can provide.
The Seventh Circuit is accepting applications for positions in the court's Office of Staff Law Clerks to begin in the fall of 2022. Application information HERE.
Saturday, June 26, 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.
Saturday, June 5, 2021
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.
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.
Earlier this week I received an email from a student with this Ninth Circuit opinion attached. The subject of the email was "Judge Lee and Star Wars," and the student told me to look on page 26 at footnote 5. I was a bit puzzled at first, since the case was about class action settlements. But, when I got to page 26 it was all clear. Here is what Judge Lee wrote,
Under the settlement, ConAgra agreed to refrain from marketing Wesson Oil as “100% Natural.” That sounds great, except that ConAgra already abandoned that strategy in 2017 — two years before the parties hammered out their agreement — for reasons it claims were unrelated to this or any other litigation. Even worse, ConAgra’s promise not to
use the phrase “100% Natural” on Wesson Oil appears meaningless because ConAgra no longer owns Wesson Oil. In reality, this promise is about as meaningful and enduring
as a proposal in the Final Rose ceremony on the Bachelor. Simply put, Richardson — the new owner of Wesson Oil — can resume using the “100% Natural” label at any time it
wishes, thereby depriving the class of any value theoretically afforded by the injunction. ConAgra thus essentially agreed not to do something over which it lacks the power to do. That is like George Lucas promising no more mediocre and schlocky Star Wars sequels shortly after selling the franchise to Disney. Such a promise would be illusory.5
Footnote 5. As evident by Disney’s production of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker.
I laughed out loud when I read the paragraph and footnote, but I also was not surprised, since I have known Judge Lee for many years, and he is definitely a fan of Star Wars (and apparently the Bachelor?). Judge Lee's Star Wars analogy has also made the news, especially in the movie and comic spheres, with one headline reading:
U.S. Ninth Circuit Court Declares THE LAST JEDI "Mediocre And Schlocky" In Recent Ruling
Although that headline might stretch the analogy a bit, it did get me thinking--should judges throw pop culture references into their judicial opinions? In my mind, the answer is certainly yes.
Before I defend pop culture references in judicial opinions, let me start with what I assume to be the critique--that it trivializes important disputes. The response is--like any other use of humor--there is certainly a time and a place for pop culture references. There are some cases where pop culture references could seem insensitive or overly trivial, but in other cases, they humanize the judiciary and raise awareness about our court system, which is why I think that they are great!
According to a 2020 survey, only 51% of Americans can name all three branches of government, with 23% unable to name any branch of government. Compare this to the 49% of adults who have seen The Empire Strikes Back. I couldn't find statistics for the number of people who can name the three movies in the original trilogy, but I think that you get my point. Star Wars is a big business and very well known. If a pop culture reference to Star Wars gets people to think, albeit even briefly, about our federal court system, that reference is a plus in my book.
How common are pop culture references in judicial opinions? I ran a few searches on Westlaw Edge to see what I could find. Searching "Star Wars" in all cases brought up 403 hits. In glancing at the top 50 results, most of them have to do with copyright infringement--they aren't using pop culture to make an analogy. Justice Kagan did make a Star Wars reference in her dissent in Lockhart v. U.S., stating "Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet 'an actor, director, or producer involved with the new Star Wars movie.' You would know immediately that she wanted to meet an actor from the Star Wars cast—not an actor in, for example, the latest Zoolander. . . . Everyone understands that the modifying phrase—'involved with the new Star Wars movie,' . . . —applies to each term in the preceding list, not just the last." 577 US. 347, 362 (Kagan, J., dissenting).
A search for "Harry Potter" in all cases brought up 284 hits. I looked at the last 84 results, and I found some gems:
- "Between Marshall's status as the only other person at the defense table and the fact that, by this time, Jenkins had twice previously been shown Marshall's face, Jenkins's in-court identification of Marshall was about as unexpected as the mention of Voldemort in a Harry Potter novel." Marshall v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 828 F.3d 1277, 1293 (11th Cir. 2016)
- "According to plaintiff, goodwill is a fleeting concept, here one instant and gone the next, depending upon a firm's current profit status—much like a Harry Potter wizard who disapparates in bad times and reappears in good." Deseret Mgmt. Corp. v. United States, 112 Fed. Cl. 438, 451 (2013)
- "In a word, today's decision will not require even depositary banks to hire armies of employees to examine each check like something out of Harry Potter's Gringotts Wizarding Bank. It will require only a minimal level of reasonable care." HH Computer Sys., Inc. v. Pac. City Bank, 231 Cal. App. 4th 221, 240, 179 Cal. Rptr. 3d 689, 703 (2014)
- "The effect is that the debtor's homestead is subject to the loss of its exemption because the snapshot taken upon filing catches the potential for movement not unlike a photograph from a Harry Potter novel captures the movement of the subjects in the photograph." In re Montemayor, 547 B.R. 684, 701 (Bankr. S.D. Tex. 2016)
So appellate judges--throw in those pop culture references! Maybe, just maybe, it will increase awareness and interest in the judiciary.
Saturday, May 15, 2021
While avoiding grading recently, I found an interesting analysis of inclusive language as a lawyer’s professional responsibility, and as a form of allyship. Jayne Reardon, a former Illinois State Bar disciplinary counsel, posted a thoughtful piece on inclusion and allies on the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Professionalism’s 2Civility website. See Jayne Reardon, Inclusive Language Is Allyship (Apr. 22, 2021).
Reardon aptly concludes: “Given that ‘effective communicator’ is part of a lawyer’s job description, we should be sensitive to how listeners may interpret our language.” Id. As lawyers, “our stock in trade is language. We can choose language that makes our points persuasively or language that is distracting and possibly offensive. Distracting or offensive language, of course, doesn’t serve our clients, our profession, or our image in the eyes of the public.” Id.
As appellate lawyers, we are in an especially good position to combine our duty to communicate clearly with the goal of using language non-offensively. In so doing, we can also use our privilege to serve as allies for underrepresented groups.
How do we combine communication with allyship? Hopefully, in many ways, including using our writing skills and engaging in conversations on bias and inclusion.
Reardon suggests we start by avoiding metaphors and by thinking carefully about the way phrases like “Chinese wall” and “the blind leading the blind” can be offensive and painful. Id. Ellie Krug, founder and president of Human Inspiration Works, LLC, finds “the language of ‘us vs. them’ particularly pernicious to our democratic values and “exhorts lawyers to embrace the diversity, equity, and inclusion practices that the business community adopted long ago.” Reardon, Inclusive Language Is Allyship.
We can also connect our language to allyship with a full understanding of what being an ally can entail. As Nicole Asong Nfonoyim-Hara, the Director of the Diversity Programs at Mayo Clinic, defines, “allyship” is "when a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group's basic rights, equal access, and ability to thrive in our society." Samantha-Rae Dickenson, What Is Allyship? (Nat’l Inst. of Health Jan. 28, 2021). “Allyship” can also focus on “help[ing] humans who often lack a voice to speak on their own behalf or who aren’t always in the room when demeaning or marginalizing comments/behaviors occur, or marginalizing policies or plans are made.” Ellie Krug, Allyship for Lawyers in an Awakened America (Apr. 21, 2021).
As Reardon notes, “[w]hen we disregard how others may interpret our language or are unthoughtful with our words, we risk offending members of our professional community, like the judge, judge’s staff, opposing counsel, or others who may hear the oral argument or read the brief. In choosing more inclusive language, we choose allyship.”
I am working to choose allyship in my writing and teaching, and I appreciate the resources and conversations about being an ally from 2Civility and others. If you are interested in seeing more of the 2Civility website and programs, you can subscribe here for the Commission’s weekly newsletter.
Sunday, May 9, 2021
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. 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:
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)
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
Re-write of Appellate Brief
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. 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.
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. 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.
 See Adam Lamparello & Megan Boyd, Legal Writing for the Real World (LexisNexis, 2014).
 See Adam Lamparello & Charles E. MacLean, The Guide to Experiential Legal Writing (Carolina Academic Press, 2015).
 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).
Saturday, March 20, 2021
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.
Saturday, March 13, 2021
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.
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
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.
Saturday, February 13, 2021
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.
Tuesday, February 9, 2021
The Supreme Court of Ohio, Commission on Professionalism, has published Professionalism Dos & Don’ts: Legal Writing. Each Do and Don’t has several subpoints. Over the next few months, I plan to take a more in-depth look at some of these Dos and Don’ts and offer examples and suggestions for how appellate advocates can implement the Dos and avoid the Don’ts. This is the second post in the series.
Do provide a consistent, coherent argument:
- Do research the applicable law thoroughly.
We have an obligation to the court and to our client to conduct thorough and exhaustive research. Rule 1.1 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct says, “A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” This includes an obligation to update our research. Failure to research adequately can cause harm to clients and embarrassment to counsel as demonstrated in Baldayaque v. United States, 338 F.3d 145 (2d Cir. 2003).
- Do investigate the facts diligently.
A corollary to the duty to research the law thoroughly is a duty to thoroughly investigate the facts of the case. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure state that when an attorney signs a pleading he or she is representing that “the factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, will likely have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery[.]”
- Do plan and organize your writing.
Outlining saves time. The more time we spend planning and outlining our writing, the less time we spend writing and rewriting. Outlining helps us organize our arguments, see gaps in our reasoning, and see things that can be eliminated. And consider as the first step, using a non-linear outline. This is a technique espoused by Bryan Garner and discussed in his book, Legal Writing in Plain English. To use this technique, the writer starts with a circle in the middle of the page that contains the issue or purpose of the writing. Off of that circle branch sub-issues, facts, authorities, and parts of what might become the final document. Here is an example from Legal Writing in Plain English:
The writer then uses this nonlinear outline to create a linear outline. Nonlinear outlining allows the writer to see how various facts and arguments might better fit before committing to a final, linear outline.
- Do make sure that any legal theory you present is consistent with applicable law.
ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 3.1 provides, “A lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue therein, unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.” So, as part of our writing process, and along with our duty to thoroughly research the law and investigate the facts, we must ensure our legal theories are consistent with applicable law.
- Do use persuasive authority.
I have to assume that in this instance the authors of the Dos and Don’ts meant, “Do use binding authority.” We all want to find that magic case that is on “all fours” with our case. In those rare instances when we do, we should cite it. Of course, we all know how infrequently that happens. When we can’t find a case that is binding, then we have to turn to persuasive authority. But not all persuasive authority is created equally. Think about what authority is likely to be more persuasive in your jurisdiction. Ask yourself questions such as, is the jurisdiction that produced the authority in the same geographic region or federal circuit as mine? Has the court relied on authority from this jurisdiction in other cases? How often have courts in other jurisdictions relief on this particular authority?
- Do state clearly what you are requesting in motions and briefs.
Ask for what you want and consider asking for alternative relief.
 Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(b)(3).
Saturday, January 23, 2021
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:
- Parler Conducts the “Absolute Minimum” of Content Moderation.
- Parler Enters an Agreement with AWS for Web Hosting Services.
- Parler Repeatedly Violates the Agreement.
- 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.
Saturday, January 2, 2021
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!
Saturday, December 26, 2020
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.
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.
 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)
Friday, December 4, 2020
Each week, the Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup presents a few tidbits of news and Twitter posts from the past week concerning appellate advocacy. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send a quick note to either (1) Dan Real at DReal@Creighton.edu or on Twitter @Daniel_L_Real or (2) Catharine Du Bois at DuBoisLegalWriting@gmail.com or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting.
US Supreme Court Opinions and News
- The Supreme Court has been asked to block the certification of Pennsylvania’s results in the 2020 presidential election. The case argues that absentee voting provisions were unconstitutional under the state constitution. Experts opine, however, that the Court’s scheduling order asking for responsive briefs one day after the Safe Harbor Deadline indicates that the case is unlikely to affect the election results. The Safe Harbor Deadline is the federal deadline for states to resolve outstanding challenges to their elections. Once it has passed, the state’s slate of appointed electors is considered to be locked in. See reports in USA Today and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
- The Court heard oral argument about the retroactive implications of their April decision on unanimous jury verdicts. In April, the Supreme Court ruled that non-unanimous jury verdicts for serious crimes (whether federal or state) are unconstitutional. Then, the ruling applied only to future cases; the court left unanswered the question of whether the decision should apply retroactively. The current case asks whether April’s decision should apply to prisoners in Louisiana and Oregon convicted in the past by non-unanimous juries. (These are the only states that allowed such verdicts at the time of the April decision). See reports from NPR, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
- James Romoser posted a thread this week about the petitions the Court is considering this week.
Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News
- While acknowledging North Carolina’s “long and shameful history of race-based voter suppression,” the Fourth Circuit reversed a lower court and upheld the state’s law requiring voters to present photo identification before casting ballots. The court determined that the lower court had improperly considered the state’s “past conduct to bear so heavily on its later acts that it was virtually impossible for it to pass a voter-ID law that meets constitutional muster.” See the order and reports from The Washington Post and The Hill.
- The Seventh Circuit reinstated ex-Penn State President Graham Spanier’s 2017 conviction for child-endangerment. The ruling determined that the lower court improperly overturned the guilty verdict about Spanier’s mishandling of claims of sexual abuse against Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. See the order and reports from the Philadelphia Inquirer and ESPN.
Beth Wilensky posted a thread on Twitter looking at the style and legal writing of an opinion of Third Circuit Judge Bibas. The thread points out the various ways that Judge Bibas employs good writing techniques, including using plain English and simple transitions.
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Few words strike more terror into the hearts of appellate practitioners than the word "waiver." It is the monster that lurks under the bed and hides in the closet of those who strive to have issues resolved substantively on appeal rather than simply dismissed.
Waiver can occur at two primary levels: at trial and on appeal. But whenever it rises, it can cause nightmares for you and your client.
Waiver at Trial - The Monster Under the Bed.
At trial, waiver can arise in a variety of ways. It often arises from a failure to preserve error meticulously. Did you get a ruling but fail to make an offer of proof so the court knows what was excluded? Waived! Did you think that the ruling on your motion in limine was good enough, so you didn't renew the objection at trial? Waived! Did you object to an improper or omitted instruction but fail to offer an accurate instruction in its place? Waived! The list goes on and on.
And then there is the infamous Rule 50. Federal of Civil Procedure 50 was practically written by the boogeyman. Rule 50(a) provides that, at the close of evidence, a party challenging sufficiency of the evidence must move for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) by specifically pointing out the law and facts that entitle that party to judgment. This is presumably so that the challenged party has an opportunity to correct any defect in proof. Rule 50(b) then provides that, after judgment, the sufficiency argument must be renewed if it was not granted the first time.
The traps caused by this two-step requirement have left many appellate practitioners with little to argue. If you did not move for JMOL at both points in the trial, your sufficiency challenge is waived. If your 50(b) points do not match your 50(a) points, many circuits will also find any differing points waived.
Recently, the Fifth Circuit recognized an entirely new Rule 50 monster. In Edwards v. 4JLJ, L.L.C., --- F.3d ---, No. No. 19-40553, 2020 WL 5628689 (5th Cir. Sept. 21, 2020), the appellant filed a JMOL and Motion for New Trial (MNT) on March 12, 2019. The trial court entered judgment March 27th without addressing that motion. The appellant then filed another JMOL/MNT after the judgment that was identical to the first, which was denied on May 20, 2019, and then filed a notice of appeal on June 12, 2019.
Appellants thought they had filed everything on a timely basis. They had filed the JMOL appropriately and avoided the Rule 50 traps. And they thought that filing the second JMOL/MNT had extended their deadline to file the notice of appeal until 30 days after it was decided under Rule 4. They even filed their notice of appeal a bit early.
But not early enough, according to the Fifth Circuit. Instead, the court held that the JMOL/MNT had been implicitly overruled by the trial court when it had entered judgment. Then, since the JMOL/MNT filed after judgment was identical to the implicitly-overruled motion, it was really a motion for reconsideration, and did not extend appellate deadlines. As such, the notice of appeal was not timely, and the court did not have jurisdiction over most of the issues in the case.
Waiver on Appeal - The Monster in the Closet.
Waiver on appeal can be even more insidious. In federal court, the issue technically becomes one of waiver (an intentional relinquishment) versus forfeiture (an unintentional omission). See Wood v. Milyard, 132 S. Ct. 1826, 1832 (2012). But whatever they call it, waiver can arise not only because the issue was not addressed at trial, but because it was not adequately addressed in the brief. Thus, some courts have found waiver where the issue was raised but only in a footnote, or in a page or less of briefing, or without citation to supporting authority. See Barry A. Miller, Sua Sponte Appellate Rulings: When Courts Deprive Litigants of an Opportunity to Be Heard, 39 San Diego L. Rev. 1253 (2002).
This is the type of waiver that can catch even the most astute legal writer. As professionals writing to a very specific audience, we listen closely when that audience speaks. And that audience repeatedly tells us that they are tired of reading our work. "Shorter is better" seems to be the recurring theme. I have even attended conferences where a justice will admonish the audience to stop citing them to authorities everyone knows, like the standard of review.
Shorter is better, but there is a shadowy place where short and concise transitions over into waiver. In the quest to cut the argument down to its finest form, we must not cut too deeply, lest the court determine there is not enough flesh left on the bones. See United States v. Dunkel, 927 F.2d 955, 956 (7th Cir. 1991) ("A skeletal 'argument', really nothing more than an assertion, does not preserve a claim. . . . Especially not when the brief presents a passel of other arguments . . . . Judges are not like pigs, hunting for truffles buried in briefs.").
Indeed, this is part of what makes briefing waiver (or forfeiture) so terrifying. What one justice finds pleasing may cause another justice to find waiver.
And then there is the timeliness of the argument. We consider it a general rule that issues not raised and decided in the trial court should not be considered on appeal, or that issues raised for the first time in a reply brief are forfeited. But the Supreme Court has been careful to preserve the discretion of courts to take up issues, and refuses to pronounce any such "general rule." See Singleton v. Wulff, 428 U.S. 106, 121 (1976).
As a result, one can never be sure when an issue that seems to be dead will suddenly lurch back to life. See Melissa M. Devine, When the Courts Save Parties from Themselves: A Practitioner's Guide to the Federal Circuit and the Court of International Trade, 21 Tul. J. Int'l & Comp. L. 329 (2013). If the court decides that the issue is important, or is required by justice, or involves "basic" issues of pure law, it can resurrect a dead argument sua sponte. Id. Even worse, if you did not address an issue because you considered it waived, you can be deemed to have "forfeited the forfeiture" or "waived the waiver." Cook v. Rockwell Int’l Corp., 618 F.3d 1127, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010).
Waiver and forfeiture really are boogeymen. They can ambush you at trial, trick you into making mistakes in your briefing, and even raise dead issues back to life. If you want to sleep well, keep the above issues in mind when preserving error or writing your next brief.
(Image credit: National Gallery of Art: Death and the Miser, c.1485/1490. Bosch, Hieronymus, Netherlandish, c.1450-1516).