Tuesday, September 7, 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 fifth post in the series.
Do provide appropriate signposts:
- Do consider using headings and summaries.
- Do use transitions between sections that guide the reader from one argument to the next, especially in longer pieces of writing.
The Commission on Professionalism asks us to consider using headings and summaries, but there’s nothing to consider, we should use headings and summaries. It is always our goal to make our writing clearer and thus to make our reader’s job easier. Headings and summaries help us do that. Transitions do too. They allow our reader to move seamlessly from one topic to the next
1. Point headings make our writing better.
Headings (here we’re talking about point headings) make our writing clearer because they show the structure of our writing, convey key points, and create white space. So let’s talk about how to create useful headings.
A. Point headings are topic sentences.
Point headings serve as the topic sentences of the paragraphs that follow. They tell your reader what you’re going to discuss. Be sure that the paragraphs that follow a point heading, and the sentences within each paragraph, relate directly to the point heading. If they don’t then you need to re-think your point heading or the paragraphs that follow it.
B. Point headings should be full sentences.
Your point headings should be full sentences and they should convey substantive information. Which of these point headings is better
1. Strict Scrutiny.
2. The statute creates a class of disfavored speakers, so it is subject to strict-scrutiny review.
The second heading tells the reader the substance they should be learning in the subsequent paragraphs—how the statute creates a class of disfavored speakers and why strict scrutiny applies.
C. Point heading should look like sentences.
Because point headings are full sentences, they should look like sentences. They should not be written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, nor should they be written in Initial Capital Letters. Save those styles for your section headings.
D. Point headings are not just for the argument section.
Point headings are helpful in the fact section of briefs too. Again, they convey substantive information, show the structure of the fact section, and create white space. Here is an example:
1. In 2007 the National Parties negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement that contained a two-tier wage system.
The sentences that follow that point heading explain how and why the National Parties negotiated a two-tier wage structure.
E. Point headings serve as a check on your analysis.
If you’ve created good point headings, you should be able to look at them and understand the structure of your argument. If you can’t, then you need to re-write your point headings or re-organize your analysis.
F. Good point headings start with a good outline.
The simplest way to ensure that you’re creating good point headings and that you’ve created a well-reasoned argument is to spend time outlining your brief. You can then turn the points of your outline into point headings.
G. You should include point headings in your Table of Contents.
Once you’ve written your brief and included good point headings, be sure to include the point headings in your Table of Contents. Doing so allows you to start persuading your reader sooner because they can see the key facts of your case and the key points of your argument just by reading your Table of Contents. Compare these examples:
Good point headings make your writing clearer and allow your reader to follow the structure of your argument. Summaries do too.
2. Summaries make our writing better.
Summaries should provide a brief overview of what you will discuss. Summaries allow you to orient a reader who is unfamiliar with a topic or issue. They give the reader a base of knowledge from which to work and help them better understand the information that you provide. Think of your summary as your elevator pitch.
After you’ve created good point headings and helpful summaries, think about ways you can transition your reader smoothly from one topic to the next.
3. Transitions make your writing easier to follow.
A good transition should remind your reader what they just learned and prime them to receive additional information. Good transitions connect the parts of your writing to avoid sudden shifts between topics or arguments. They allow your reader to move smoothly from one subject to the next and show that there is a logical structure and flow to your writing.
Good point headings, summaries, and transitions work together to create a logical flow to your writing. The effort you put into crafting these parts of your brief will make your reader’s work easier and thus help you be a better advocate.
September 7, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts, Tribal Law and Appeals, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, August 5, 2021
Thursday’s Rhaw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law—exploring ideas, theories, strategies, techniques, and critiques at the intersection of rhetoric and legal communication.
The Rhaw Bar Is Back
The Rhaw Bar is back from its long hiatus. Thanks to the Appellate Advocacy Blog for allowing me to return. Once a month, we’ll savor a little bite of rhetoric and law. I hope you’ll share your thoughts, too, in the comments, and let me know what law and rhetoric topics you’d like me to write about in future posts.
This Month’s Topic: What is Rhetoric, Anyway? And Why Should the Appellate Lawyer Care?
Rhetoric and rhetorical skills are a topic of interest for lawyers. But, what are we really talking about when we talk about rhetoric?
Look at these titles for the different ways rhetoric is used:
- A Bar Magazine: 5 Persuasive Rhetorical Techniques
- A Law Review Article: Significant Steps or Empty Rhetoric? Current Efforts by the United States to Combat Sexual Trafficking near Military Bases
- A Book Chapter: A Night in the Topics: The Reason of Legal Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of Legal Reason
- An Article by a Rhetoric Scholar: Critical Legal Rhetorics: The Theory and Practice of Law in the Post- Modern World
What’s going on here? Does “rhetoric” mean the same thing in every title? Not really. Instead, the titles provide four ways for understanding rhetoric in relation to the law and legal practice.
Rhetoric Is a Set of Strategies for Producing Arguments. The first title, 5 Persuasive Rhetorical Techniques points us toward a definition of rhetoric as productive art, as a means of producing persuasive arguments. In other words, rhetoric is the way in which we use language (or symbols) to persuade others to adopt a perspective (e.g., the First Amendment does not apply in this case) or to take a desired action (e.g., affirm the trial court). When we think of rhetoric in this sense, the focus is on how we will persuade audiences through our messages. How to use rhetorical techniques like deductive and inductive reasoning, stylistic devices, analogy, and metaphor fall into this category. How to invent arguments falls into this category, too. Rhetorical scholar Gerald Hauser’s definition puts an even finer point on this we he describes rhetoric as a way of doing something with words: “Rhetoric,” he says, “is an instrumental use of language. One person engages another person in exchange of symbols that accomplish some goal.”
Rhetoric Is a Deceitful Way of Communicating. The law review article Empty Rhetoric draws attention to rhetoric as words that are false, deceptive, misleading, or disingenuous. Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, for example, called rhetoric “that powerful instrument of error and deceit.” Two millennia prior to Locke, Plato was equally skeptical of “false” rhetoric, calling it “cookery” or “flattery.” The law review title is an apt example of the “rhetoric as false” definition: The Navy says it’s eliminating sex trafficking, but is it? Do its words mean anything at all? Are the words disconnected from reality?
This interpretation of rhetoric is common—we hear about the false rhetoric of one politician or another all the time. Central to this meaning is that rhetoric has no (or very little) role in producing truth; instead, rhetoric leads us away from the truth. That is, those who use rhetoric must be misleading the audience, seeking to convince others in a way that is inconsistent with reality. (Below, you’ll see I reject this idea.)
“Legal Rhetoric” Is a Particular Kind of Rhetoric. The title, A Night in the Topics: The Reason of Legal Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of Legal Reason, directs us to the idea that law is not only produced by rhetoric, but is a rhetoric itself. In other words, law is a discipline that uses language in a particular way to accomplish particular ends; it has its own discourse commitments.
Legal scholar James Boyd White famously said this about the law: “[Law is a] branch of rhetoric . . .by which community and culture are established, maintained, and transformed. So regarded, rhetoric is continuous with law, and like it, has justice as its ultimate subject.” (Read White’s article here.) In other words, if law is continuous with rhetoric, then law is a rhetoric: a way of describing, categorizing, understanding and knowing the world through discipline-specific rhetorical commitments. Other rhetorics exist, too. For example, the rhetoric of science is a well-studied subject in which scholars look for the rhetorical commitments of scientific discourse.
Legal Scholar Gerald Wetlaufer, in his article, Rhetoric and Its Denial in Legal Discourse, argues that law as a rhetoric includes
commitments to a certain kind of toughmindedness and rigor, to relevance and orderliness in discourse, to objectivity, to clarity and logic, to binary judgment, and to the closure of controversies. They also include commitments to hierarchy and authority, to the impersonal voice, and to the one right (or best) answer to questions and the one true (or best) meaning of texts. Finally, the rhetoric of our discipline reveals our commitment to a particular conception of the rule of law.
Wetlaufer suggests that understanding the rhetoric of law as a rhetoric can help us understand the advantages and shortcomings of that rhetoric. In other words, by recognizing that the law “speaks” in a particular way, we can carefully look at the implications of that way to our understandings of justice, power, lawyers’ reputation, argument, and the rule of law. To get a better sense of law as a set of rhetorical commitments, I recommend Wetlaufer’s article as well as A Night in the Topics: The Reason of Legal Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of Legal Reason, by Jack Balkin, which suggests that law can be understood as a rhetorical “topics.” (You can decide if you agree with either of them.)
Rhetoric Is a Theory and Method for Analysis and Critique. The last title, Critical Legal Rhetorics: The Theory and Practice of Law in the Post- Modern World, draws attention to rhetoric as a theory and method for analyzing and critiquing legal discourse. Thinking about rhetoric in this way means thinking like a contemporary rhetoric scholar—using rhetoric to study, explain, theorize, and criticize symbol use. In this context, for example, judicial opinions, statutes, and other legal documents become artifacts for study-- critics apply rhetorical theory and use rhetorical methods to gain insight into the ways in which the discourse works.
Beyond its title alone, Critical Legal Rhetorics is an example of this way of thinking about rhetoric. Rhetoric scholar Marouf Hasian argues that not only do we need more rhetorical critique of Supreme Court opinions for their political and contradictory features, but also that rhetorical critics need to examine the discourse of less powerful others whose rhetoric is not recorded in the judicial record. He calls this a “critical legal rhetoric” approach. Hasian says that by situating official legal discourses in the larger public sphere of argument, we can better understand how rhetorical choices impact fundamental rights. Hasian’s article is just one example of how rhetorical theory and method can be developed to analyze legal texts. (If you want to better understand the basics of rhetorical criticism, here’s a great book for novices.)
So why should appellate advocates care about these four meanings of rhetoric?
The work of appellate advocacy is centered on reading and writing legal arguments, and rhetoric is, perhaps above all else, a particular kind of sensibility in reading and writing. Developing a rhetorical sensibility can enable appellate lawyers to have a more nuanced approach to reading and writing.
First, and probably most obviously, appellate lawyers can write more effective legal arguments if they understand rhetoric as the strategies and tactics of persuasion. That is, by learning rhetoric, we can learn more about how to write arguments.
And second, but perhaps not as obviously, if appellate lawyers understand law as a rhetoric that can be critiqued with rhetorical theory and methods, then they can be more sophisticated readers of the law, improving their abilities to “see” and critique legal argument. In addition, appellate lawyers might also be more attuned to the law’s relationship to justice. Remember what White said? Law is a rhetoric with “justice as its ultimate subject.” I think, as an ethical matter, appellate lawyers should better understand that connection between law, rhetoric, and justice, and reading law as a rhetoric can help develop that understanding. (If you want to read more, I’ve written here about the connection between the lawyer’s skill of rhetorical criticism and the lawyer’s special responsibility for justice.)
Finally, what about the meaning of rhetoric as empty or false? I suggest that as lawyers, we reject the idea of “empty rhetoric” and instead consider as more accurate the idea that lawyers produce rhetorical knowledge. Rhetorical knowledge is not false; it is a way of knowing the world through the enterprise of argument. As legal scholar Jay Mootz suggests, rhetorical knowledge is generated through legal practice and is relevant to the historical contingencies, controversies, and communities of the human condition. Mootz convincingly argues that for centuries, we have neglected “the unavoidable role of rhetorical persuasion in legal meaning . . . . [W]e should return to a conception of legal meaning as rhetorical knowledge.” I think he’s right.
What have I missed in my definitions of rhetoric as they relate to the law? What do you think about appellate lawyers being rhetorical critics? Your thoughts are welcome in the comments below.
Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law and in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. She is the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Legal Communication. The Institute’s mission is to study legal communication issues and provide programming and training that improves legal communication skills. Among other things she’s up to right now, she’s currently serving on the Florida Bar Association’s Special Committee on Professionalism. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at email@example.com.
Sunday, August 1, 2021
Judges have considerable freedom to write opinions as they like. They write for a broad audience. A judicial opinion speaks not just to the case’s lawyers and their clients, but to other judges, the legal academy, and perhaps, most importantly, the lay public. Even though most judicial opinions will not penetrate the public consciousness, the decision in a case should seek to demonstrate the elements we associate with thoughtful and considered judging. Still, in a world where social media champions the clever turn of phrase and even the burning insult, readers should not be surprised when judges adopt a vernacular not often associated with legal writing.
Some subject matters will not open the door to that type of accessible writing. Justice Elena Kagan once announced the opinion of the Court on a rather dry issue concerning the Anti-Injunction Act with: “If you understand anything I say here, you will likely be a lawyer, and you will have had your morning cup of coffee.” On the other hand, as an inveterate comic book superhero enthusiast, Kagan could not resist throwing in a gratuitous line in a patent infringement case involving “Spider-man”: “The parties set no end date for royalties, apparently contemplating that they would continue for as long as kids want to imitate Spider-Man (by doing whatever a spider can)” and citing an issue of the comic book as authority elsewhere in the opinion.
Indeed, her late colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, is remembered as much for his pointed barbs and colorful jargon as he is for his dedication to a form of originalism in interpreting the Constitution. For example, lamenting the much-criticized Establishment Clause test from Lemon v. Kurtzman, Scalia memorably described its usage after a long period in hybernation as being “[l]ike some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried, . . . frightening the little children and school attorneys of [defendant school district].”
Yet, the same reasons that cause some of us to remember that opinion prompted University of Wisconsin law professor Nina Varsava to write that judicial writing that turns opinions into a “compelling and memorable narratives” ill serves the “integrity of the judicial role and the legitimacy of the adjudicative process” in a forthcoming law review article. Professor Varsava recognizes that commentators love a lively and engaging style that seems to burnish the judicial reputations of those who write in a striking style all their own. Nonetheless, she advocates a more “even-keeled and restrained institutional style.” She rationalizes this plea by critiquing more stylistic writing as “ethically dubious” because it undermines a judge’s “most fundamental professional responsibilities.” To Professor Varsava, judicial opinions are not in the persuasion business, but instead serve a more pedagogical purpose.
Tellingly, Professor Varsava disagrees with Justice Kagan, who has said that “[t]here’s no rule against fun in [opinions].” The professor argues that “perhaps there should be such a rule.” Indeed, Professor Varsava imagines that judges could be constrained by enforceable regulations in the form of “internal court rules, rules of judicial conduct, or even statutory requirements.”
However interesting Professor Varsava’s take on opinion-writing is, and there is great reason to believe that enforcing it through rules or statutes is a dog that won’t hunt, to use a phrase the professor would surely reject, does her plea for more balanced and straightforward writing hold any value for the appellate advocate?
Unlike a judicial opinion, a brief targets a very specific and limited audience: the panel of judges who will decide the case. In many instances, the panel of judges who will hear the case is often unknown until after briefing is complete and suggests a certain amount of caution. Rhetorical flourishes and witty allusions may make for good reading, but can also detract from the persuasiveness of an otherwise well-founded argument. It may well put off a judge who equates the infusion of colloquial speech into the brief as disrespectful or an attempt to lend cover to a weak case.
To be sure, unlike Professor Varsava’s view of judicial opinions, briefs are written to persuade. To hammer home a point and perhaps make it more memorable, an occasional flashy phrasing or telling metaphor can serve a highly useful purpose. Still, there are limits that lawyers must recognize in an exercise of professional judgment.
Even so, judicial rhetoric can provide some license for flights of fancy in briefs. A Brandeis, writing a judicial opinion, might usefully explain why irrational fears cannot justify the suppression of speech by stating that “[m]en feared witches and burnt women,” but it is difficult to imagine how those words could have been made in a brief – except by quoting and citing the Brandeis opinion.
 Kimble v. Marvel Ent., LLC, 576 U.S. 446, 450 (2015) (emphasis added).
 Id. at 465 (“Cf. S. Lee and S. Ditko, Amazing Fantasy No. 15: “Spider–Man,” p. 13 (1962) (“[I]n this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility”)).
 403 U.S. 602 (1971).
 Lamb's Chapel v. Ctr. Moriches Union Free Sch. Dist., 508 U.S. 384, 398 (1993) (Scalia, J., concurring).
 Nina Varsava, Professional Irresponsibility and Judicial Opinions, __ Hous. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2021), available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3825848.
 Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 376 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring), overruled in part by Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969).
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 7, 2021
A few months ago I found myself drafting a motion for rehearing in an appeal that I had thought would be a fairly easy win for my client. It involved the interpretation of an easement, and there were three strong reasons why the trial court's rulings should have been reversed. The court had denied the requests for oral argument and a new justice issued an opinion that went in a direction neither party really argued.
As I was drafting the motion for rehearing, I asked myself (as I always do when drafting such a motion) where things had gone wrong. The court's opinion was based on what I considered to be dangerously flawed presumptions about provisions that were fairly standard, and that would cause significant problems in the industry if they were interpreted in this new way. If only the court had granted oral argument, and they had telegraphed their understanding, I could have addressed the issue then.
Unfortunately, while oral argument on appeal is considered to be very important to advocates, it is increasingly disfavored by courts. The courts have grown weary of poor presentations that waste a considerable amount of time, and ultimately provide little value. As such, oral arguments are being denied in many courts and cases submitted entirely on the briefs.
The problem with this is that, when done well, oral argument can explore and test arguments in ways that are difficult to test by the briefing alone. We need to convince the courts that it is worth their time again.
This second edition of Point Well Made: Persuasive Oral Advocacy, a practice guide for new and old advocates alike, could go far in helping courts see the value of oral argument again. New lawyers can pick up the book and find simple checklists and guidelines that will help them learn how to properly craft and present their arguments. Seasoned attorneys will find reminders and new tips on remote argument that will keep them updated and current on both thinking and style. And if the practitioners follow this advice, the courts may find oral argument helpful again.
Point Well Made begins with a short primer on rhetoric and them moves straight into audience analysis. New practitioners in particular will find value in acquainting themselves with the mindset and concerns of their judges and justices. Old practitioners may need the reminder that our justices have needs that should be met as the focus of the argument, not just a side-effect.
The book then provides a step-by-step checklist, with examples, of how to prepare the argument (with attention paid to theme development, story telling, and how to handle the law), how to handle questions, and how to draft the argument outline and "script." Both the guidance on how to craft the argument and how to handle questions from different "types" of justices are very valuable to new practitioners.
The authors also provide guidance on verbal and non-verbal communication skills to employ and refine in presenting the argument. They start with the six most common body language errors, then proceed to provide practical advice on how to overcome those errors and avoid others. Thankfully, they recognize that "one size does not fit all" when it comes to body language, and recommend instead variations of stances and techniques that each speaker can try out themselves to develop their own style.
The authors end this second edition with a detailed discussion of the "new normal" of remote argument. I wish I had been given this guidance at the beginning of my time in quarantine. During quarantine (and since) I argued motions via Zoom, participated in a Zoom trial, and have had oral arguments via Zoom. As a result, I learned many of the lessons presented in the book regarding camera placement, lighting, and so on by trial and error. But even with that experience, I found many of the remote argument tips to be helpful and plan on employing them in my next remote argument, particularly with regard to vocal inflection and ramping up intensity, since we tend to appear more "flat" on remote viewing.
Finally, the authors have included appendices with useful checklists for each topical chapter, as well as short exercises to implement the concepts. Practitioners and students alike will find these short exercises to be helpful in driving home the points taught.
As an appellate specialist who also coaches moot court, I wince a bit each time a justice sitting as a volunteer on a moot court panel comments on how much better prepared and practiced the students are than the majority of the "real" lawyers who appear before them in court. If more practitioners read and applied the lessons in Point Well Made, perhaps I would hear that criticism less often, and perhaps the courts would be willing to hear more oral arguments again.
(Image credit: A lithograph from Honore Daumier, Les Gens de Justice, 1845.)
Friday, July 2, 2021
Persuading other people to adopt your point of view, whether in a courtroom, a faculty meeting, a debate, or any other context, depends on how you deliver your argument. Below are tips to maximize the persuasive value of an argument.
1. Persuasion is about perception
In many instances, people do not decide whether to accept a particular argument based on facts or science. Rather, their decision is based on their perception of you. And that perception will be influenced substantially by how you deliver your argument. The most important aspect of that delivery is confidence. If you appear confident, the audience will be more likely to agree with you, regardless of contrary facts or evidence.
Simply put, confidence is everything.
Confident advocates take a stand and are bold.
They are unequivocal.
They never get flustered.
They never act surprised.
They never say “um,” or, “I think,” or, “I’m not entirely sure.”
When they receive hostile questions, they react by stating, “I’m really glad that you asked that question.”
In short, if you win the battle of perception, you also likely win the war of persuasion.
2. Make your audience initially agree with you by connecting your argument to commonly accepted values
To win an argument at the end, you have to win at the beginning. And winning at the beginning means connecting your argument to broader values upon which nearly all people can agree. If people agree with the broader values underlying your argument, they will be more likely to accept the specific aspects of that argument. Consider the following examples of two hypothetical lawyers arguing that the First Amendment protects “hate speech”:
The First Amendment protects hate speech because the Founders believed that the right to free speech was essential to liberty and democracy. As a result, offensive, distasteful, and unpopular ideas must be tolerated to ensure that a true marketplace of ideas exists and that people are not threatened by government censorship. Therefore, hate speech, however one might define such speech, must be tolerated.
Ok, whatever. Now consider this example:
Speech that degrades, denigrates, and demeans other people can be terribly hurtful. I’m sure that we can all recall a moment in our lives when another person said something demeaning to us and remember the pain that it caused. And I’m sure we wish that all people realized the harm that words can cause and respected the dignity of every human being. At the same time, most people don’t want the government to become the speech police. They don’t want the government to arbitrarily decide what speech is considered “hate speech,” and what speech is not, thus giving it the power to censor whatever ideas it deems unpopular. If the government had that power, liberty, autonomy, and democracy would be threatened. For these reasons, as much as we may despise those who degrade, denigrate, and demean others, the answer is to fight back by using our free speech rights, not to give the government carte blanche to dictate what we can and cannot say.
The second example appeals to values that most reasonable people accept and view as essential to a free society. And when they agree with these broader values, they are likely to accept the argument that hate speech must receive First Amendment protection.
Simply put, if they agree with you at the beginning, they are more likely to agree with you at the end.
3. It’s ok to be a little unprofessional in the right circumstances
Advocates who are authentic, likable, relatable, and passionate are more likely to sway an audience. And in some instances, authenticity means ‘being real’ and dispensing with formalities when making an argument. In short, sometimes it’s ok to be a little unprofessional. Why? Because it conveys your passion. It shows that you believe in your argument.
Consider the following examples involving two hypothetical appellate advocates who are arguing to the New Jersey Supreme Court the issue of whether defense counsel's performance at trial violated the Sixth Amendment:
In Strickland v. Washington, the United States Supreme Court held that a Sixth Amendment violation occurs where counsel’s performance is negligent and where such negligence results in prejudice, meaning that, but for counsel’s negligence, the outcome of the trial would have been different. This case is a perfect example of ineffective assistance of counsel. Counsel slept during parts of the trial. Counsel admitted to having a cocaine addiction and to being an alcoholic. Yet, the appellate court held that this conduct was harmless error because my client confessed to the crime. Now my client will be incarcerated for twenty-five years for voluntary manslaughter. This decision was erroneous and should be reversed.
Yeah, right. Based on that argument, the appellate court’s decision isn’t going to be reversed. Now consider this example:
My client was represented by counsel who, during the trial, was addicted to and snorting cocaine. He was represented by counsel who smelled of alcohol. And due to the hangovers caused by his frequent cocaine and alcohol binges, counsel fell asleep during the trial, including during the prosecution’s examination of critical witnesses. It should come as no surprise that anyone represented by a drug-addicted, alcoholic, and sleeping lawyer would be convicted. But it should come as a shock that such a conviction would be upheld on appeal. The appellate court didn’t give a shit about this blatant denial of due process. The appellate court didn’t give a shit about the drugs, the booze, and the frequent naps during the trial. To the court, this was harmless error. If that is harmless, it’s difficult to know what would be harmful.
The second example is real. It is raw. It is authentic.
Of course, being a little unprofessional doesn’t give you a license to be a jerk. Never be disrespectful or attack personally your adversary or the lower court. And keep the four-letter words to a minimum. But there are instances in which your passion and authenticity can be best expressed by dispensing with the formalities and being real.
4. Reframe your opponent’s argument
Don’t allow your opponents to frame issues on their terms. Reframe the issues to support your argument and reinforce the commonly accepted values on which they are based. For example, consider the above example regarding ineffective assistance of counsel and how the hypothetical attorney in Example 2 reframes the argument to appeal to basic and commonly accepted values.
The state acknowledges that defense counsel had a drug and alcohol problem and that defense counsel slept during portions of the trial. But that is not the relevant inquiry. The question is whether defense counsel’s performance prejudiced the defendant, such that the outcome of the trial would have been different had counsel performed differently. The answer to that question is no. The conviction should be affirmed.
The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel snorted cocaine during the trial. The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel is an alcoholic. The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel falls asleep during a trial and renders the defendant helpless in the legal process. The state is asking this court to hold that attorneys who are addicted to cocaine and alcohol, and who decide to sleep rather than aggressively advocate for their clients, satisfies the Sixth Amendment’s promise of effective assistance of counsel. To accept the state’s argument is to say that the Sixth Amendment has no meaning whatsoever.
Yikes. I wouldn’t want to be a justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court in such a case.
5. Explain with specificity why your position is good policy and will lead to fair and just results
It’s not sufficient that your proposed rule or policy is workable based on the facts of a specific case. The most persuasive arguments demonstrate that such a rule or policy would be workable, fair, and just in future cases and in a variety of contexts.
To achieve this objective, you should do three things. First, make sure that your position is supported by facts and empirical data. Second, acknowledge weaknesses in your position and explain how your rule or proposal addresses such weaknesses and leads to just results. Third, to demonstrate its efficacy and fairness, give hypothetical examples explaining how your rule or proposal would be applied in other contexts.
After all, facts don’t always win arguments.
The law doesn’t always win arguments.
Be confident. Be authentic.
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.
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.
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)
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
Classical English Style, by Ward Farnsworth, is another must-have for the library of an appellate advocate. Farnsworth, who is Dean and John Jeffers Research Chair in Law at the University of Texas School of Law, has written an engaging, easy to read guide to English style that adds to his works on persuasion and rhetoric. The text includes examples, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from well-known stylists such as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. It also includes examples from Shakespeare and the Bible alongside more modern examples from Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill.
Farnsworth begins, where we all must: Simplicity. “There are two ways to say almost anything in English: with little words or big ones.” The book discusses how the English language developed from words with Germanic or Saxon roots and words with French or Latin roots. Saxon words tend to be shorter and more direct and thus, should be preferred by writers. He provides a list to demonstrate:
Next, the author discusses word choice and rhetorical devices such as metonym and hyperbole and how to use those devices to great effect. He then turns to sentence structure and length and provides examples of the effective use of variation to engage and persuade. A discussion of passive voice includes examples of its effective use.
The final third or so of the text discusses rhetorical devices such as anacoluthon—a technique to challenge readers to think more deeply or to represent stream-of-conscious thought; rhetorical instruction and announcement; and cadence.
One thing the text lacks is annotations to the examples. While the text often discussed the use of techniques in the examples, it would have been helpful to visually highlight the use of different techniques in a few of the examples in each section to draw the reader’s attention to the technique. This is a small quibble, and perhaps reflects more on this author’s shortcomings than on the text.
Classical English Style will help improve both written and oral advocacy; Farnsworth writes in a clear concise style—himself a model of classic English style.
 Ward Farnsworth, Classical English Rhetoric (2016); Ward Farnsworth, Classical English Metaphor (2010).
Saturday, August 22, 2020
The recent district court slip opinion in Jamison v McClendon, __ F. Supp. 3d __, 2020 WL 4497723 (S.D. Miss. Aug. 4, 2020), granting a police officer qualified immunity in a section 1983 action generated a great deal of discussion and analysis in the legal writing community. United States District Judge Carlton Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi used plain language and established rhetorical tools to craft a beautifully-written and compelling order. In substance, the order is a much-needed indictment of how far the qualified immunity doctrine has crept beyond its beginnings. In form, the slip opinion has a great deal to teach us about writing.
If you have not read the Jamison Qualified Immunity Order, I highly recommend you take the time to read the slip opinion. The introduction alone provides lovely lessons in style while thoughtfully advocating for us to increase justice for all.
Judge Reeves began with a traditional “hook” or interest-catching device, listing activities plaintiff was not doing:
Clarence Jamison wasn’t jaywalking.1
He wasn’t outside playing with a toy gun.2
He didn’t look like a “suspicious person.”3
. . . .
Jamison, 2020 WL 4497723 at *1-2. Each footnote reminds us of the tragic case connected to the quoted facts, such as footnote 1 regarding jaywalking, which explains, “[t]hat was Michael Brown,” and footnote 2, noting, “[t]hat was 12-year-old Tamir Rice.” Id. at *1 nn. 1-15. The court included fifteen examples, using the technique of repetition to paint a vivid picture of the vastness of police misconduct in recent years. Id. at *1-2.
Next, Judge Reeves succinctly and persuasively summarized the facts, mixing complex and simple sentence structure while using straightforward language:
Clarence Jamison was a Black man driving a Mercedes convertible.
As he made his way home to South Carolina from a vacation in Arizona, Jamison was pulled over and subjected to one hundred and ten minutes of an armed police officer badgering him, pressuring him, lying to him, and then searching his car top-to-bottom for drugs.
Nothing was found. Jamison isn’t a drug courier. He’s a welder.
Unsatisfied, the officer then brought out a canine to sniff the car. The dog found nothing. So nearly two hours after it started, the officer left Jamison by the side of the road to put his car back together.
Id. at *2.
The court finished the introduction with a traditional roadmap. Judge Reeves explained the overall role of precedent and stare decisis, stating: “This Court is required to apply the law as stated by the Supreme Court. Under that law, the officer who transformed a short traffic stop into an almost two-hour, life-altering ordeal is entitled to qualified immunity. The officer’s motion seeking as much is therefore granted.” Id. at *3. But the court continued, “let us not be fooled by legal jargon,” because “[i]mmunity is not exoneration.” Id. Finally, the court previewed the rest of the opinion by explaining how the case demonstrated “the harm done to the nation by this manufactured [qualified immunity] doctrine.” Quoting the Fourth Circuit, the court ended the introduction: “This has to stop.” Id. (quoting Estate of Jones v. City of Martinsburg, 961 F.3d 661, 673 (4th Cir. 2020)).
In the body of the slip opinion, Judge Reeves used history, respected scholarship, and case law to explain why reviewing courts should consider limiting the application of qualified immunity. In other words, the court specifically illustrated precedent and aptly connected the law to this case and to the broader rules of qualified immunity. Then, ending the slip opinion with a specific call to action, Judge Reeves charged us: “Let us waste no time in righting this wrong.” Id. at *29. At least one court has already cited the slip opinion. See Peterson v. Martinez, 2020 WL 4673953 *5 n. 5 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 12, 2020) (“The reader is referred to the excellent opinion of the Hon. Carlton W. Reeves in Jamison v. McClendon . . . describing the unhappy development of qualified immunity jurisprudence.”).
Commentators’ opinions differ on whether the Jamison court should have found the underlying facts here outside the scope of qualified immunity. But the clear tone, repetition, common sense language, and strong use of authority make the order an especially nice example of persuasive writing.
Tuesday, May 5, 2020
Justice Gorsuch’s opinion for the Court in Ramos v. Louisiana, which held that Louisiana’s and Oregon’s laws allowing conviction by non-unanimous juries violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, drew much commentary. There were discussions of its holding and the lineup of the majority and minority. And on #appellatetwitter, there was much discussion of Justice Gorsuch’s decision to forego in-text citations in favor of footnoted citations in the majority opinion. Justice Gorsuch’s choice rekindled one of the many debates on style that are always smoldering on #appellatetwitter.
Professor Orin Kerr (@orinkerr) seems to have reignited the #appellatetwitter debate with his tweet of April 21, 2020: “Reading Ramos, I am struck by the citation style: It’s the first Supreme Court majority opinion I recall in which all citations are in footnotes. I find that style annoying, I confess. If citations are important enough to include, put them in the text.” Professor Kerr’s tweet prompted responses from judges, attorneys, other professors, and noted lexicographer Bryan Garner. The following day, Garner, a champion of footnoted citations, devoted an episode of this twitter video log Curious Mind to discussing his thoughts on why it’s better to place legal citations in footnotes.
Garner co-authored Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, with Justice Gorsuch’s predecessor, Justice Antonin Scalia. There, the authors debated in-text versus footnoted citations. Of course, Garner argued for the use of footnoted citations; Justice Scalia, “disapprove[d] this novel suggestion.” So let’s review some of the pros and cons of both and then you decide which you favor.
But first, let’s take a moment to think about the work citations do in legal writing. Citations serve at least two primary purposes: they tell us how to locate the cited source and they tell the reader the importance of the cited authority, i.e., the weight of the authority. The latter is important because it helps the reader evaluate the relative value of one authority as compared to another. We evaluate the weight of authority by its source. Is it a primary source or secondary source? If it’s a court opinion, what court decided the case? Is it a constitutional provision, a statute, or a regulation? How recently was the case decided or the statute enacted? So, whether one chooses to use in-text citations or footnoted citations, the reader must be able to evaluate the weight of the cited authority. And because appellate advocates respect and value their reader’s time, they want to make it easy for their reader to evaluate the weight of the authority.
Those, like Garner, who favor footnoted citations contend that putting citations in footnotes aids readability while still allowing the reader to evaluate the weight of authority. Those who follow Garner’s approach and footnote citations would write something like, “More than forty years ago, the Court decided Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.” This communicates the relative age of the case and the court that decided the case. The footnote then contains only the part of the citation that tells the reader where to locate the case. If done well, footnoted citations let the reader evaluate the weight of the cited authority without forcing the reader to read—or more likely skip over—the information that tells her where to locate the authority.
Those who favor in-text citations, like the late Justice Scalia, argue that footnoted citations bloat the text with information that could be more easily conveyed in a traditional in-text citation. So the in-text citation would be something like, “In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977) . . . .” This conveys the same information as the example above, but now the information is all within the textual sentence.
The in-text citation crowd has one other argument that perhaps carries the day, at least for now. Legal writers and readers are traditionalists and “Judges are uncomfortable with change.” Appellate advocates are unlikely to put off our judicial reader by following the tradition of in-text citation. We risk doing so if we footnote citations. This is particularly true if the writer using footnoted citations isn’t careful to include within the text the information the reader needs to evaluate the weight of authority.
Returning to Justice Gorsuch’s opinion for the Court in Ramos, it was the first majority opinion in which he footnoted the citations. And just three days after Ramos was decided, the Court released its opinion in Romag Fastners, Inc. v. Fossil, Inc., with Justice Gorsuch again writing for the majority. There he used in-text citations. So, while Justice Gorsuch rekindled the #appellatetwitter debate, perhaps he too is unsure which style to prefer.
 No. 18-5924, slip op. (U.S., April 20, 2020).
 Other common debates on style include whether writers should use one space or two after a terminal punctuation mark and the best font.
 Tweet by @orinkerr, April 21, 2020, https://twitter.com/OrinKerr/status/1252526810019004418
 Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (2008).
 Id. at 132-35.
 Id. at 132-33.
 Id. at 133.
 Alex Z. Chew, Citation Literacy, 70 U. Ark. L. Rev. 869, 879-80 (2018).
 See id. at 881.
 Scalia & Garner, supra note 5, at 132.
 431 U.S. 209 (1977).
 Scalia & Garner, supra note 5, at 134.
 No. 18-1233, slip op. (U.S., April 23, 2020).
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
If stare decisis really is for suckers, the Supreme Court’s decision in Ramos v. Louisiana was an unremarkable end to the anachronistic Apodaca v. Oregon decision permitting states to convict criminal defendants without unanimous jury verdicts. But for those that have argued for a strong stare decisis tradition and defended the doctrine’s importance, the Ramos opinion’s sustained discussion of when to overrule a precedent is a fascinating read.
First, Ramos reiterated that a relatively weak tradition of stare decisis is in vogue on the Supreme Court. In a process that culminated in 2018’s Janus v. AFSCME opinion, the Court has recently moved towards a version of stare decisis that focuses on the poor quality of a precedent’s reasoning, even permitting the Justices to overrule on that basis alone. In contrast, a strong stare decisis tradition sets “poor reasoning” as a condition precedent to stare decisis analysis, not a ground for reversal; such reversals occur only if there is a special justification, such as unworkability, strong reliance interests, new legal developments, or vastly changed facts. Writing for the Court, Justice Gorsuch quoted the weak version of stare decisis in Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt—which in turn relied upon the formulation in Janus—to emphasize that the quality of a decision’s reasoning is the primary consideration within stare decisis analysis. His argument against Apodaca then focused on its “gravely mistaken” reasoning, which made it an outlier in the Court’s Sixth Amendment and incorporation jurisprudence and engendered the reliance of only two states. In addition to the three Justices that joined Gorsuch’s opinion in full, two concurring Justices, Cavanaugh and Thomas, would likewise make the quality of a precedent’s reasoning the primary consideration, if not the singular consideration, in the stare decisis tradition. And even the three-Justice dissent made its argument in defense of Apodaca on the weak stare decisis tradition’s terms. The dissent—an unexpected alignment of Justices Alito, Roberts, and Kagan—argued that Apodaca was not nearly as poorly reasoned as the majority would have it, but was silent on whether such poor reasoning should be a reason to overrule. The dissent’s silence on that point was even more thunderous given Kagan’s prior insistence that “it is not enough [to overrule because] five Justices believe a precedent wrong.”
Second, Ramos introduced a new facet to the stare decisis debate. Can some precedents be so fractured and incomprehensible as to be no precedent at all, becoming a “phantom precedent?” Three Justices that joined the primary opinion in full argued that Apodaca was just such a jurisprudential apparition. For that trio, Apodaca failed to supply a “governing precedent” because its controlling opinion came from a single Justice, Powell, supporting a theory of “dual-track” Sixth Amendment incorporation that a majority of the Apodaca Court itself rejected. And while Sotomayor wrote separately without adopting that portion of the primary opinion, her own view was remarkably similar. She claimed Apodaca was a “universe of one” that was so “irreconcilable with . . . two strands of constitutional precedent” that its precedential value was minimal, if not evanescent.
Those opinions offered little insight into how to identify the phantom precedents within the many fractured opinions the Court issues each term. Perhaps Apodaca was uniquely unable to generate precedential value; without any guiding principles to identify why that decision was a phantom, it is hard to tell. Perhaps the view that Apodaca is a phantom precedent merely expresses discomfort with the rule in Marks v. United States that the Court’s holding in a fractured opinion is “that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds.” Powell’s Apodaca opinion seems to fit that bill, but perhaps the Ramos Court marks the start of a new method to measure the holding of fractured opinions. Or perhaps Ramos intimates the Supreme Court’s desire to allow some of its opinions to have little or no precedential effect, much like the now commonplace unpublished decisions that I have discussed elsewhere on this blog.
Ramos is a complex decision with many layers to unpack beyond the few I’ve mentioned here. But its take on stare decisis is utterly fascinating. In future years, it may mark an important turning point for a doctrine whose death has been reported with great exaggeration.
 590 U.S. ___ (2020).
 406 U.S. 404 (1972).
 585 U.S. __ (2018).
 Ramos, 590 U.S. ___ (2020) (slip op., at 20).
 Id. (slip op., at 20-22).
 Id. (slip op., at 7-8, 10-11) (Kavanaugh, J., concurring) (suggesting that the first factor in stare decisis analysis is whether the precedent is “grievously wrong,” which Apodaca was); Id. (slip op., at 2-3) (Thomas, J., concurring) (claiming that “demonstrably erroneous” decisions must be overturned irrespective of any practical stare decisis considerations).
 Id. (slip op., at 13-15) (Alito, J., dissenting).
 Knick v. Township of Scott, 588 U.S. __ (2019) (slip op., at 16) (Kagan, J., dissenting) (citing Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 576 U.S. __ (2015) (slip. op., at 8)).
 Ramos, 590 U.S. ___ (2020) (slip op., at 7) (Alito, J., dissenting).
 Id. (slip op., at 16).
 Id. (slip op., at 2) (Sotomayor, J., concurring).
 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977).
April 22, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
I have mentioned in past blogs the importance of the "narrative paradigm" in communications theory. In a nutshell, this theory argues that there is more to persuasion than the logic of your argument. Instead, the "truthiness" of an argument can be compelling, regardless of its objective merits, when it matches the life-experiences and biases of the reader or listener.
In legal writing, we often use allusions, or even meme-like story indexes, in order to quickly hijack the meaning behind a certain story or narrative to fit our needs. This often takes the form of biblical parables in an attempt to quickly convey the "truthiness" of a statement. The parable of the two builders, one who builds on sand and another who builds on rock, for instance, is cited in several cases. The gist of the parable being that if you do not have a good foundation, you cannot build a lasting structure or legal argument.
Citing to the parable, courts often make this comparison. Thus, "a motion built on speculation and conjecture will rarely withstand the winds of scrutiny." Barnette v. Grizzly Processing, LLC, 2012 WL 1067076, *1 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 28, 2012) (unpublished). Or "using the common law as the basis for reasoning, is like building a house upon the sands instead of upon the rock." Ex parte Estep, 129 F.Supp. 557, 558 (N.D. Tex. 1955). Or, even more simply, "[t]he argument is as insubstantial as a house built upon the sand." Russel v. Gonyer, 264 F.2d 761, 762 (1st Cir. 1959).
We all think we get the gist of this parable - that you must have a firm foundation in your home, life, or argument, or it will all fall apart when tested. But most of us don't really understand what it originally meant.
Ray Vander Laan, a theologian with extensive time and training in the middle east, has pointed out that this understanding of the parable is most likely incomplete. In the part of the world that this story was first circulated, the people lived in a rocky desert, where the rocks occasionally give way to even, sand-covered wadis. The floor of a wadi would be the easiest place to build. It would also be the most foolish, because wadis flood in a very predictable and eye-catching fashion:
This cultural knowledge changes the meaning of the well-known parable. It isn't just foolish to build on sand because sand shifts - it is insane to build on sand, because the house will inevitably flood and be destroyed.
This illustration is important for more than just the biblically minded. It shows that the power of a story depends on its understanding, and that this understanding can shift and change over time and cultures. That means that when we reference allusions, or reference stories, we need to make sure that our readers will have the same understanding as ourselves.
Now, as long as our intended meaning meets the understanding of our audience, it does not really matter that the original meaning was something different. Thus, the quotations above still work, because the general understanding of the parable is that a shifting foundation is bad. It is only if we were communicating with the original audience that meaning would be lost.
But this story serves as a reminder that our storytelling is only effective when we know that our audience is going to understand it. I have commented before about how obscure literary references might be admirable, but ineffective if the reader has no reference to the work. Understanding the audience, and their reception of a particularly story index or allusion is necessary to properly telling the story. To paraphrase a well-known marketing book, "To be successful... today, you must touch base with reality. And the only reality that counts is what's already in the [audience's] mind." Al Ries & Jack Trout, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind 5 (rev'd ed. 1986).
This is not relevant just to the use of existing narratives, but to the stories you put together in your briefing. Remember that you may know the entire case and every detail, but that the court only knows what your present to them in the record. In order to make sure they hear the story you know, you must be sure to preserve all of the pieces of that story (by ensuring that all of your evidence makes it into the record at the trial level) and that you then present, on appeal, a complete narrative that contains each event or fact that makes your client's story persuasive. This includes facts that may not seem even legally relevant, but that are relevant to your audience.
In short, be sure you know what is in your audience's mind before you rely on narrative references to persuade them. Otherwise, you will be building an argument on shifting sand. And everyone knows that's a bad idea.
(Image source: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The (Greater) Tower of Babel (Vienna), 1563)
Thursday, November 14, 2019
Thursday’s Rhaw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law—exploring ideas, theories, strategies, techniques, and critiques at the intersection of rhetoric and legal communication.
After a hiatus, the Rhaw Bar is back to explore lawyer digital public commentary and raise some initial questions about lawyers engaging in digital rhetoric.
In Formal Ethics Opinion No. 480, issued in the Spring of 2018, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility considered for the first time how a blogging lawyer must treat the confidentiality of client information. In deciding that the confidentiality rules applied to internet blogging, the Committee identified a category of lawyer speech it called “communicat[ion] about legal topics in public commentary.” The Committee recognized that while lawyers have historically “comment[ed] on legal topics in various formats” through “educational programs” and “articles and chapters in traditional print media such as magazines, treatises, law firm white papers, and law reviews,” the “newest format [for comments] is online publications such as blogs, listserves [sic], online articles, website posting, and brief online statements such as microblogs (such as Twitter®).” The Committee said that “[o]nline public commentary provides a way to share knowledge, opinions, experiences, and news.”
Although the point of this opinion was not necessarily to identify a new cateogry of legal writing but instead to warn lawyers that their obligations of confidentiality extend to their non-client-centered public speech, the opinion has the secondary effect of raising two questions. First, is a lawyer's digital public commentary a unique genre of legal writing? And, if it is, what are the rhetorical possibilities for and problems of this form?
I'm going to make the case that writing public commentary--whether digital or not--is a unique genre of legal writing. First, writing public commentary to influence thought and discourse on legal topics is decidedly less client-centered than other, more traditional forms of legal writing. Writing public commentary is more connected to the lawyer's role as a "public citizen with a special responsibility for justice" than it is to the lawyer's role as a representative of clients. Both of these roles are identified (along with others) in the Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (most if not all states have adopted the Preamble's language).
Second, the idea of the lawyer speaking publicly is implicit in what the Preamble says about the lawyer-as-citizen role. The Preamble directs that “a lawyer should cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients, employ that knowledge in reform of the law[,] and work to strengthen legal education.” The Preamble further offers that a lawyer should “further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.” Both of these activities--cultivating knowledge and furthering public understanding--require communication with the public, not exclusively with courts, clients, or opposing parties in private and semi-private transactions. And if the public is now digital, it makes sense for the lawyer to communicate with that audience digitally.
So, I think the Committee was right to expressly identify "public commentary" as something different from the other forms of writing lawyers do. And although lawyers making public commentary is an old phenomenon, the Committee rightly recognized that the "digital" is new.
The digital information and arguments lawyers present to the public about legal matters of collective concern are a form of "digital rhetoric," rhetoric that is electronic or computerized. While digital rhetoric has characteristics in common with other forms of rhetoric, it also has some unique features. Two of those features are circulation and fragmentation.
Circulation refers to the way a message moves from audience to audience across space and time. The rapid velocity at which messages circulate is perhaps the defining characteristic of the digital environment. In the past, messages had to be shared face-to-face or through print documents physically sent from one person to another. (Think of the idea of the "circulation" of a newspaper, referring to the measurement of how many readers a newspaper had.) Message circulation increased and accelerated with television and radio. But, even then, gatekeepers controlled the amount, speed, and movement of information via those media. With the internet, however, both the speed and range of message circulation has increased again. That is, a message can find itself instantly anywhere in the world, be subject to minimal gatekeeping (at least in free societies), be seen by limitless audiences, and be responded to by those audiences instantaneously.
Fragmentation means that a digital message can be broken into smaller pieces and those fragments can be reused, repurposed, or reformed in other digital messages. That is, when composing messages in and for internet spaces, the resources of invention come not only from one's own internal thoughts but also from mixing and remixing what can be found in other messages already in circulation. In the digital world, fragmentation is more common and more frequent than with messages that appear in print, for example. This means that online speakers and audiences have more resources for thought and argument than in other contexts but at the same time may face more difficulty in making sense of messages that have been mashed and mixed in ways not originally anticipated.
So, if lawyers’ online public commentary is both a unique genre of legal writing and a digital rhetoric, what questions might we ask about the challenges and opportunities digital legal commentary presents?
First, we might ask questions about the resources available to lawyers in the digital space. What methods and sources, unique to digital rhetoric, are available to lawyers who want to be commentators in digital spaces? Are/should any of those methods be ethically off limits to lawyers? Conversely, how might we adapt traditional rhetorical resources and approaches to apply to digital public commentary about the law? For example, how do our traditional ideas about effective organization, style, and delivery apply in the digital space?
Second, we might ask questions about the quality of lawyers’ messages and the risks posed by message fragmentation and rapid circulation. What concerns for accuracy and influence of the lawyer's message do rapid circulation and fragmentation present for the lawyer? Is misuse and misinterpretation of message fragments inevitable? If a lawyer's commentary on a legal issue is broken apart and is re-used in ways the lawyer did not foresee, what are the ethical and rhetorical implications for the lawyer? How do lawyers influence the limitless audiences that may encounter all or fragments of the lawyer's message?
Finally, we might ask questions about the a lawyers' duties in the context of digital rhetoric. If lawyers are supposed to be public-citizens educating the public on legal issues, do lawyers have an obligation, not just an opportunity, to use digital rhetoric for this purpose? Must lawyers be rhetorically "competent" in digital public commentary, and, if so, what does fulfilling that duty look like?
These questions demonstrate that the digital space presents new challenges and opportunities for lawyers as well as new ways of thinking about what what forms of persuasion are effective and appropriate for legal commentary in a digital world. These questions are worth thinking (and writing) about as digital communication spaces become even more prevalent and lawyers participate in them more. Your thoughts are welcome in the comments below.
Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law and in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. She is the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Legal Communication. The Institute’s mission is to study legal communication issues and provide programming and training that improves legal communication skills. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday, November 6, 2019
Much has been written about how people learn, including studies showing that people move from being novices to masters, passing through various stages along the way. When learning new skills, novices act with a “rigid adherence to taught rules or plans” and use “little discretionary judgment.” As they move toward expert and mastery status, they no longer need to strictly rely on “rules, guidelines or maxims.” They have a “vision of what is possible,” they have an “intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding,” and they can improvise.
Moving from novice to master in any field at any skill typically requires a person to learn fundamentals before learning to manipulate or vary the fundamentals to become more effective at the skill. For example, when students are taught to form letters at an early age, they are taught to draw the lines of the letters in a particular direction and to match model letters exactly. Only after mastering the fundamentals of drawing letters do students begin to vary the precise models by adding personal touches that they think look better or flow better, yet still communicate the letters clearly. Similarly, athletes first learn the fundamental skills of their sports and practice those fundamental skills extensively. As these athletes practice and learn more about their sports and move toward mastery, they begin to improvise to perform the skills in unique ways that elevate the athletes’ performances to expert or master levels. Varying the technique of performing a skill by someone who has mastered the skill is accepted and even admired when the person is performing at a top level. If athletes are not performing effectively, though, coaches often insist that the athletes return to fundamentals to improve their games.
Like students first learning to draw letters and athletes first learning the skills of their sports, law students and new lawyers must begin with fundamentals and work through the stages, from novice to master, when engaged in legal argument and writing. Professors and lawyers working with these novices must exercise patience as they wait for these law students and lawyers to develop. A common refrain from lawyers working with novice legal writers is that these novice writers do not write persuasively enough. Perhaps this is because they are novices who have not mastered legal argument and writing sufficiently to improvise—to vary from the “taught plans or rules” and use their discretion. They do not yet have a deep, tacit understanding of how far they can push their arguments beyond the existing law and how strongly they can tell the court how it should find or hold. They are new to legal discourse; they do not know how bold or creative they can be. They are like the children learning to draw letters who try to precisely follow the models of letters and do not dare to add an unnecessary flourish or variation. They have not yet reached mastery.
Frustrated by the work of novices, professors, lawyers, and judges sometimes criticize these writers for following formulas and not taking more license with their writing. Novices even worry that their “formulaic” writing may be a problem. Legal writers are taught to use formulas, such as IRAC and CREAC, to ensure that they provide the information necessary for a solid legal argument and analysis. These formulas are used because they track a logical way to present information needed for legal arguments. Judges are looking for arguments that are supported by rules, explanations of those rules, and application to the facts involved in a case. As these writers practice and learn more about writing legal arguments persuasively, they will become more adept at varying structures of their arguments. They will learn when to depart from rigid adherence to taught rules when doing so will make their writing more persuasive.
A suggestion for these novices and their professors and mentors is that the novices write a draft using IRAC or CREAC to ensure that they have included the necessary information. Once a draft exists, the writer should then revise and edit the work to turn it from an accurate statement of the law and reasoning to a persuasive piece of advocacy. This may involve deliberately altering the formulas employed. For example, precedent case discussions might follow a rule as part of a rule explanation when the precedent case discussion is necessary to explain and interpret the rule. On another point of law or argument, the precedent case discussion might follow the application of the rule to the case at issue. Deciding to make this move says to the court that this is the rule, this is how the court should apply it to the facts, and the precedent case corroborates the argument being espoused. This way guarantees that the court will not become distracted by a precedent case discussion when it comes before the argument involving the case at issue. It also risks that the court might have wanted a fuller exposition of the law before the argument. As the writer gains expertise and begins to master persuasive legal writing skills, he or she will become better at determining the best way to proceed in writing an argument, confidently moving away from rigidly following taught rules or plans when appropriate.
Instructing the novice on the necessary parts of an argument and how to order the parts of an argument is valuable, as is emphasizing to the novice the importance of revising and editing. Even though the novice will adhere to a formula initially, the novice will only improve as a writer if he or she is willing to experiment with revising to make arguments more compelling. Novice writers tend to underestimate the value and necessity of revising and editing. The best writers know that rarely if ever is the first draft the best draft. Once a writer writes the parts necessary to make an argument, that writer should move the parts around, manipulate the language, and present the arguments in the best format to make the case to the court.
So, to professors and supervising lawyers, expect to instruct students and new lawyers on how to make their writing more persuasive. Expect to revise and edit their writing to show them exactly how to do this effectively. Model the behavior you want to see in these novices. And, with time, the arguments and the writing will be more persuasive as the writers move toward mastery.
 See, e.g., Stuart E. Dreyfus, The Five Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition (June 1, 2004), https://www.bumc.bu.edu/facdev-medicine/files/2012/03/Dreyfus-skill-level.pdf.
 Raman K. Attri, 7 Models from Research Demystify Stages in Novice to Expert Transition (Nov. 18, 2017), https://www.speedtoproficiency.com/blog/stages-in-novice-to-expert-transition/.
 Mary Beth Beazley, A Practical Guide to Appellate Advocacy 97 (5th ed. 2019).
 IRAC: Issue, Rule, Analysis, Application, or Argument, and Conclusion. CREAC: Conclusion, Rule, Explanation, Analysis, Application, or Argument, and Conclusion.
 See Beazley, supra note 5.
Thursday, September 19, 2019
Thursday’s Rhaw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law—exploring ideas, theories, strategies, techniques, and critiques at the intersection of rhetoric and legal communication.
Today’s Rhaw Bar asks: can a lawyer be rhetorically effective if the lawyer lacks good character? A Roman rhetorician, Quintilian, didn’t think so. His “ideal orator” needed both eloquence and virtue. Quintilian’s ideas can reframe lawyers’ perceptions of their own work.
In popular culture, “rhetoric” is often used as an insulting term, not a complimentary one. For example, a speaker’s words might be called “empty rhetoric” or “merely rhetoric,” meaning the message is manipulative, dishonest, or insincere. In at least some cases, the implication is that the speaker who is engaging in “empty” or “mere” rhetoric has a poor character rather than a good one. That is, one who engages in “empty rhetoric” is also not a good person.
But first century Roman lawyer and rhetorical scholar Quintilian thought just the opposite. Yes, you read that right: only the “good person, speaking well” (a paraphrase of Quintilian’s words) could engage in rhetoric.
Marcus Fabius Quintilian taught and wrote about rhetoric during the Roman Empire (in the first century A.D.), when the emphasis on rhetorical training and in handbooks was primarily on legal rhetoric. This makes the work of classical Roman rhetoricians like Quintilian particularly helpful to practicing lawyers. (If you want to explore further, take a look at the works of Cicero, writing in the first century B.C.E., and at the anonymously authored Rhetorica Ad Herennium, written around the same time.) In both practice and teaching, Quintilian focused his work on legal rhetoric, and his Institutio Oratoria was his opus on teaching rhetoric.
In Institutio Oratoria, Quintilian describes, among other things, the “ideal orator,” the person who perfectly engages in rhetoric. He argues that rhetoric is not amoral; rather, rhetoric is necessarily moral—the orator’s job is to say what is “just and true.” Accordingly, Quintilian makes virtue a necessarily component of practicing rhetoric; any influential speech that lacks virtue is merely persuasion, not rhetoric.
So, who is this ideal orator who can “do” rhetoric? Quintilian answers: no person can be an orator (i.e., “do” rhetoric) unless that person is a good person—one who chooses virtue over vice, discernment over deception. For Quintilian, virtue is connected to sincerity. Only a virtuous person can be sincere and thus persuade to truth; a “bad” person, on the other hand, while perhaps capable of eloquence (i.e., speaking well), is insincere and thus not capable of rhetoric. The ideal orator is the person who has “the knowledge and boldness to speak with sincerity” while a person of “bad” character is one utters words “at variance” with his thoughts. In sum, perfect eloquence is the combination of speaking well and having virtue or, in other words, speaking well with sincerity.
Well, then, so what about this? Why should lawyers pay any attention to splitting hairs about what rhetoric—and the practicing of it—can mean?
Here’s one idea: In a 2013 Pew Research Center Study, lawyers were rated lowest in the amount of esteem the public holds for them. But Quintilian’s unbreakable connection between virtue and eloquence in the practice of rhetoric empowers lawyers to make a claim for lawyering as a virtuous profession. The craft of legal advocacy—advocacy that is grounded in rhetorical theory more than two millennia old—is, by definition, ethical, moral, virtuous. Framing the practice in this way has the potential to improve lawyers’ sense of the profession’s value to society and, as a consequence, improve their career satisfaction. Great legal advocacy is not insincerity; it is, by Quintilian’s definition, both sincere and effective, worthy of esteem.
Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law and in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. She is the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Legal Communication. The Institute’s mission is to study legal communication issues and provide programming and training that improves legal communication skills. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at email@example.com.
Thursday, August 22, 2019
Today’s Rhaw Bar is inspired by the start of a new law school year. I’ve been teaching legal writing courses for nearly twenty years, and it’s always right about now that I start collecting myself and my thoughts for the feedback I’ll be giving new legal writers on their writing. I also start thinking about the lawyers and judges who will be welcoming recent graduates into the practice and who might also be supervising those new lawyers and giving them feedback on their legal writing.
In this post, I describe a perspective an experienced lawyer can adopt for giving feedback to novice legal writers; an experienced lawyer can think about giving feedback as establishing a particular kind of ethos—the ethos of an “expert coach.” By taking the perspective of an expert coach when giving feedback, the experienced lawyer can help the novice legal writer more fully engage with the feedback and ultimately be a more effective, competent, and independent legal writer in the future.
The idea of developing a positive ethos for feedback is explored in depth in my article, “Building Credibility in the Margins: An Ethos-Based Perspective for Commenting on Student Papers,” so you can read more about the rhetorical theory that supports this perspective there. In addition, if you are interested in reading even more about how to give feedback to legal writers, take a look at Volume 1 of the Legal Writing Institute’s Monograph Series, The Art of Critiquing Student Work. While these articles are mainly about the feedback given by faculty to students in law school, the ideas in the monograph articles are transferable to the mentoring and supervising relationships between more experienced lawyers and novice legal writers who are just beginning their professional legal writing careers.
A Commenting Ethos Is A Perspective, Not A Technique
Mostly, when I talk with others about giving feedback to legal writers on their writing, we end up talking about the “techniques” for giving good feedback. Examples of techniques for giving feedback include “be sure to include feedback that is positive,” “avoid critical comments that start with the word ‘you,’” and “use a describe-evaluate-suggest” structure for your comments.” These techniques are all important in constructing effective feedback (both written or oral) for others’ legal writing. (You can learn about some of these techniques in the monograph and at the end of this article.) But, this post is not about technique. Instead, it is about the perspective one can take when giving feedback. That is, how should one think about the feedback task? How should a lawyer giving feedback approach the work? What attitudes should she adopt?
One perspective you can take on giving feedback is to think of feedback as a place where you construct who you are as the person giving feedback, a place where you construct your ethos. Ethos (one of the Aristotle’s three artistic modes of persuasion—ethos, pathos, and logos) is the idea that a person’s identity—as perceived by the audience—has persuasive force.
Aristotle considered ethos as having three dimensions: competence, character, and goodwill. In the context of giving feedback to newer lawyers, this means demonstrating that you, the commenter, are competent to give the feedback, are of the right character to give the feedback, and have goodwill toward the writer in giving feedback. A positive commenting ethos can help you meet the goals of persuading the writer engage with your feedback, to improve the document (and the next document), to better understand the writer’s audience, and to be more confident and competent to draft and revise in the future. Conversely, developing a negative feedback ethos can result in giving feedback that is ignored or not implemented fully—the perception of your competence, character, and goodwill doesn’t persuade the audience to listen to you.
Ethos is not something that you craft exclusively on your own; instead, ethos exists at the intersection between you, others with whom you interact, and the groups or communities in which you are a member. In other words, ethos is a social act that takes place in a particular cultural context. Thus, when giving feedback on the legal writing of others, you and your audience are acting together to construct your ethos for the feedback situation. The perspective you bring to that interaction can work to shape how your audience will interact with you to shape your credibility as a source of feedback. I’ve found that taking a perspective that emphasizes the ethos of “expert coach” rather than “rival writer” will improve your feedback’s appeal.
A Positive Commenting Ethos: Expert Coach, Not Rival Writer
Developing an “expert coach” commenting ethos can help you make choices in your feedback that will appeal to novice legal writers, engage them, and improve their writing. So, what is the ethos of an “expert coach”?
An expert coach is comfortable with (but not arrogant about) his or her competence and seeks to demonstrate that competence through detailed and kind feedback. The expert coach does not want to make the novice writer feel poorly about being a novice or about missing the mark on a first or even second attempt at a final product. Instead, the first goal of the expert is to show the novice that the expert is speaking on behalf of the community of readers and writers—that the expert is a “fellow legal reader.” This ethos of expertise coupled with fellowship builds the novice’s trust in the feedback and in the person giving it.
The expert coach’s second goal is to bring the new legal writer into the community by revealing the range of the accepted practices in the community to which the new writer wants to belong. This is the coaching perspective—the experienced lawyer sees himself as the source of detailed information that gives the novice writer insight into the audience’s needs and expectations. The goal of the expert is to build the novice’s confidence in herself so that she will make further efforts to join the community of legal writers and readers.
The expert coach does not project himself as authoritarian, someone who “tells” the new writer what to do or rewrites the document so that it is “right.” Instead he sees himself as an authority who knows much about the subject of legal writing and can guide, model, and make suggestions for someone who doesn’t have the same level of knowledge. The expert coach knows that she wants to convey feedback in an objective rather than a judgmental tone, using a tone that builds trust rather than exacts judgment or conveys irritation, impatience, or annoyance. An expert coach knows that supportive patience is essential to building the trust that results in the novice benefitting from the feedback.
An expert coach sees herself as sitting “alongside” the novice writer; the coach is not a rival trying to take control of the novice writer’s work or to demonstrate why the expert “wins” and the novice “loses.” Instead, the expert coach understands that the goal of the feedback is to give the writer power, not to take power away. Thus, the feedback tone is collaborative, not competitive, and the feedback content is reflective and engaging, not simply a rewrite of the novice’s work. The expert coach adopts an ethos that makes feedback empowering and gives the novice both ideas and options for how to improve.
Adopting a coaching ethos is particularly useful in relationships of supervision. If mentors and supervisors want mentees and subordinates to grow as writers by thinking, making choices, and exercising judgment for themselves rather than doing only what they “are told to do,” feedback should empower novices to get comfortable thinking, choosing, and judging. So, a good commenting ethos abandons a “rival” perspective and takes a seat “alongside” the novice as a fellow legal reader who encourages independence and responsibility-taking.
Because giving feedback on legal writing is such a practical, hands-on activity, it may seem a bit impractical and high-minded to focus attention on developing a perspective from which to begin the task. But, I’ve found that being intentional about the ethos I am constructing in the feedback process has helped me meet my feedback goals. If the goals of your feedback are to help new legal writers learn; join the discourse community; and be more independent, confident, and successful writers, developing an expert coach ethos will help you achieve those results.
Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law and in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. She is the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Legal Communication. The Institute’s mission is to study legal communication issues and provide programming and training that improves legal communication skills. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thursday, August 8, 2019
Today’s Rhaw Bar returns to the rhetorical strategy of setting-off text as a way focus a reader’s attention and create meaning. In my post from a month ago, I described how using lists in legal writing employs visual rhetoric strategies to both stack-up and set-off important information. In this post, I return to the concept of setting off information, this time through a punctuation mark: the em-dash.
In his 2006 book, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, Richard Lanham argues that “attention is the commodity in short supply” in an information economy. Legal writers know this all too well; they have an ethical duty to keep a reader’s attention focused on the content of complex legal documents. But busy legal readers are inundated with more information than they can possibly digest, have access to that information at speeds faster than ever, and are likely subjected to more distractions from reading on screens that are animated with competing demands on the reader’s attention. In a digital world, the legal writer’s need to point the reader toward important information is more critical than ever.
A punctuation mark can be an efficient and effective way to visually call a reader’s attention to an important point and to shape the meaning of the text it punctuates. An underused punctuation mark with visual rhetorical impact for attention-getting is the em-dash. When used appropriately—and sparingly—the em-dash is an easily implemented, powerful visual rhetoric technique for legal writing.
Em-dashes typically are made by typing two hyphens between two words with no spaces between any of the characters. Remember that a hyphen (-), which connects compound words and modifiers (among others) like em-dash, absent-minded, or mother-in-law, is not an em-dash. An em-dash—appearing on either side of this text—is at least twice as long.
An em-dash visually separates (1) a phrase or clause within a sentence or (2) information at the end of a sentence from the rest of the sentence. When a pair of em-dashes are used within a sentence, they typically take the place of commas or parentheses; when a single em-dash is used toward the end of a sentence, it typically takes the place of a colon or semi-colon.
Em-dashes take advantage of both novelty and white space to draw the reader’s eye to text that either follows a single em-dash or lies between em-dashes. Used sparingly, em-dashes have novelty; readers will notice them and ask, “I wonder what this is about?” In addition, an em-dash creates more white space around text than that created by a comma, semi-colon, or colon, visually highlighting the selected information and causing the reader to notice it. While commas, parentheses, semi-colons, and colons also set-off information, they do so in a less forceful and attention-grabbing way. The em-dash, on the other hand, is more assertive and commanding—hey! this text is important!
An em-dash, however, does more than just call attention to text; the em-dash also provides a clue for the reader about how to give meaning to the sentence as a whole. The em-dash is a visually persuasive framing device; the em-dash helps the writer select a dominant meaning for the sentence while deflecting other meanings that are available.
Take for example this sentence from a legal argument in a case where Jones is arguing that Jones’s marriage to Smith should be annulled because the marriage took place while Jones was under duress:
Smith sent Jones an email the day before the wedding threatening to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.
This sentence has essentially three pieces of information:
- Smith sent Jones an email.
- The email threatened to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.
- This email was sent the day before the wedding.
In the sentence above, all three pieces are expressed in a way that makes the ideas contained in them roughly equal in importance. That is, the frame of the sentence is balanced evenly, all of the ideas in the sentence share the same importance, and the reader is free to decide which parts of the sentence to give more or less attention.
But notice what happens to the sentence’s meaning when one of the pieces of information is set off with em-dashes:
Smith sent Jones an email—the day before the wedding—threatening to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.
Now, by using em-dashes, the writer causes imbalance in the sentence’s frame, visually setting off what the writer wants the reader to notice: the timing of the threatening email. The em-dashes guide the reader about how the sentence is meant to be read; the timing of the email is the most important information. The em-dashes help prime the reader to expect that Jones’s duress argument will be stronger because of the e’mail’s timing. By using em-dashes, the writer deploys dramatic interruption to call attention to important information and to shape the meaning of the sentence. And this is accomplished with only punctuation.
Notice what happens to the sentence if the writer wants to emphasize the content, not the timing, of the email:
The day before the wedding, Smith sent Jones an email—a threat to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.
Here, the em-dash sets off the text at the end of the sentence. Visually, the single em-dash acts almost like an arrow, pointing the reader toward what the writer wants to be the most important information. Structuring the sentence this way places the reader’s attention on the threatening email’s content. Instead of being primed to focus on a timing argument, the reader is primed to focus more on the threatening language. By moving the em-dash to call attention to a different part of the sentence, the writer changes the meaning of the sentence for the reader.
While legal writers should use em-dashes to draw attention and to help create meaning, writers should be careful not to overuse them. Overuse causes em-dashes to lose their dramatic visual impact. Think of em-dashes like the salt on the top of a salted caramel. A little bit of salt enhances the sweet flavor, making the candy more satisfying; too much salt ruins the whole thing.