September 21, 2017

The Lawless Landscape of Legal Writing

Editor’s Note: CBA-CLE Legal Connection is pleased to present a new series of legal writing columns authored by Michael Blasie. Michael Blasie began his career as a commercial litigator for Cooley LLP in New York City. He recently moved to Denver, where he is a Law Clerk to Hon. David Richman of the Colorado Court of Appeals. Welcome, Michael!

Think. That’s the key. Good legal writing is not about following rules. Good legal writing is good judgment.[1] Test and improve your judgment with these two guidelines.

Have A Good Reason For Everything You Write

Many attorneys stop thinking about legal writing after a few years of practice. They form habits. They think they know what certain briefs should look like. They stop choosing and begin defaulting.[2] This is a problem.

Although you might not “always” or “never” write a brief a certain way, you should always have a good reason why you wrote a brief a certain way. Why did you write it this way instead of that way?

The reason may be responsive; e.g., at a recent CLE the judges of this court said they find it helpful when briefs do [x]. Or it may be pragmatic; e.g., the court’s rules require [y]. Or perhaps the reason comes from judgment; e.g., this citation warrants a fuller multi-sentence explanation rather than a parenthetical because [z]. All fine. Just have a reason, and make it a good one.

“Because that is how it is done” or “Because that is how [name of other attorney/institution] does it” are not good reasons. Here’s why.

Consider this standard introduction to a brief:

Defendants Profitable, Corp. (“Profitable”) and Not Me, Inc. (“Not Me”), (collectively “Defendants”), respectfully submit this brief in opposition to the motion filed by plaintiffs Harmed Corp. (“Harmed”) and XYZ, Inc. (“XYZ”) (collectively “Plaintiffs”), pursuant to C.R.C.P. 59(e), to amend the judgment filed herein on January 1, 2017 (“Judgment”).

I see this introduction in almost every brief. Why does it exist? You might say it identifies who wrote the document, what the document is, and what relief the authors’ seek. But I don’t think that is why people include it. That reasoning is engineered after-the-fact. Instead people probably write this paragraph because they always have. They saw it in every template they received as a young attorney and they have seen it in most briefs since. So we all do it, for no reason.

Reexamine this introduction in its full context:

 

County Court, Denver County, Colorado
1437 Bannock Street, Room 100
Denver, Colorado 80202, 720-865-7840
____________________________________________________________
Plaintiffs: HARMED CORP. and XYZ, INC.,

v.

Defendants: PROFITABLE, CORP. and NOT ME, INC.
____________________________________________________________

Charisma Genius, Esq.
All We Do Is Win, LLP
123 Main Street
Denver, CO 80204
____________________________________________________________

DEFENDANTS’ BRIEF IN OPPOSITION TO PLAINTIFFS’ C.R.C.P. 59(e) MOTION TO AMEND THE JUDGMENT

____________________________________________________________

Defendants Profitable, Corp. (“Profitable”) and Not Me, Inc. (“Not Me”), (collectively “Defendants”), respectfully submit this brief in opposition to the motion filed by plaintiffs Harmed Corp. (“Harmed”) and XYZ, Inc. (“XYZ”) (collectively “Plaintiffs”), pursuant to C.R.C.P. 59(e), to amend the judgment filed herein on January 1, 2017 (“Judgment”).

 

Recall the purported purposes of the paragraph: to identify who wrote the document, what the document is, and what relief the authors’ seek. I’ll accept it does that. Now explain why we have captions.

The same reasons.

This introduction is wholly redundant with the caption. I know who the authors are, what the document is, and the relief sought because it is in giant capital letters one inch above the introduction.[3]

Approach this introduction from a different angle. If you cut this paragraph what would happen? For starters, most readers would not notice because they reflexively glance over the paragraph anyway. It certainly would not confuse your readers. After all, you have never read an opinion that started with “This is an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts in the case of Smith v. Jones.” Level of confusion: zero. But cutting the paragraph would reduce your word count and provide a chance to hook your audience.

Although this introduction does not hurt your brief, it fails to strengthen it. It blows the opening. Liken it to comedians who open with “How is everyone doing tonight?” Wasted words, wasted time, wasted opportunity. You could have hooked your audience and you didn’t.

True, this introduction could be helpful in some cases. For example, if you represent a third party intervener, this opening could introduce the party and explain its relationship to the case. Or perhaps you use it to avoid confusion when several motions have been filed with similar titles. Use this introduction when you have a good reason.[4]

Lastly, a few stylistic points. Many attorneys compulsively define terms with quoted phrases inside parentheticals. Stop. Unless you have a good reason. Here, there is no need to define all the defendants in the case as “collectively ‘Defendants.’” Obviously the term “Defendants” refers to all the defendants in the case. Such a definition might be useful if you are referring to some, but not all, of the defendants (e.g. “the Colorado Defendants”). Similarly, you can shorten party names (“Not Me” and “XYZ”) throughout the brief without “defining” them and without any risk of confusion. Likewise, if there is only one judgment, then “Judgment” refers to it. This habit is one we think helps readers, but often causes more harm than good. [5] It is a tool that works sometimes. Use it when you have a good reason. Don’t when you don’t. Good writing is good judgment.[6]

Tie Your Reason to How You Will Persuade Your Audience

A good reason is not enough because not all good reasons persuade. You must tie that reason to how it persuades your audience.

For example, legal writing guru Bryan Garner advocates putting citations in footnotes. Garner cites benefits like increasing readability, exposing poor writing, and enhancing the main text discussion of authority.[7] These are good reasons.

But do not neglect your audience. Few judges sanction this practice. Most judges despise footnotes, or at least view them skeptically. Reading a brief with dozens of footnotes will certainly breach expectations and could cause intense frustration.

Suppose you are appealing a criminal conviction. In a lengthy but carefully compelling narrative you weave together the defendant’s unique circumstances, understandable actions, and unfair treatment during the case. Then you a raise a single issue about whether the trial court erred by denying a challenge to a juror who had difficulty understanding voir dire questions and difficulty communicating. Your compelling narrative may elicit sympathy and reflect a mastery of storytelling, but your reader will likely see it as wholly divorced from the legal issue. And a judge may view it as an appeal to emotion without arguing the applicable law.

Finally, most legal writing advice assumes a single audience—the court. But practitioners often have multiple audiences, like senior attorneys and clients. Consider all of these audiences when choosing a writing strategy.

 


[1] See Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges 59 (2008) (“But whenever you are convinced that departing from any of our recommendations, or from any convention, will make the court’s job easier, depart.”)

[2] See Robert M. Russel, Rhetoric for Appellateers 19 (Handout, March 2015).

[3] See id. at 92 (“Whatever you do, don’t allow this section [the introduction] to duplicate what is written elsewhere. Repetition bores, and boredom invites skimming.”)

[4] For ideas on other ways to start a brief, see Stephen Armstrong & Timothy Terrell, Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing 149-73 (Practicing Law Institute 3d ed. 2008); Ross Guberman, Point Made: How to Write like the Nation’s Top Advocates 3-11 (2d ed. 2014); Ross Guberman, Point Taken: How to Write Like the World’s Best Judges 3-39 (2015) (discussing introductions to opinions).

[5]“There also are lawyers who are singularly devoted to what I call double-identification. They love unnecessary parentheses; and the more unnecessary the better – even if the only sure result is the reader’s total loss of interest in what’s being said.” Judge William Eich, Writing The Persuasive Brief, Wisconsin Lawyer (Feb. 2003), available at www.wisbar.org/newspublications/wisconsinlawyer/pages/article.aspx?Volume=76&Issue=2&ArticleID=614.

[6] For advice about how to reference parties and when to define terms, see Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing In Plain English 57-62 (2d ed. 2013); Alex Kozinski, The Wrong Stuff, 1992 BYU L. Review 325, 328 (1992); Guberman, Point Made, supra n. 4 at 288-89; Scalia & Garner, supra n. 1 at 120-22.

[7] Scalia &. Garner, supra n. 1 at 132-33.

 

Michael Blasie graduated from the New York University School of Law. He began his career as a commercial litigator and criminal defense attorney in the New York City office of Cooley LLP where he practiced in state and federal trial and appellate courts. After five years he moved to Denver where he currently works as a law clerk to the Honorable David J. Richman of the Colorado Court of Appeals. Michael also serves as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Golden.

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