April 22, 2018

Forging New Writing Conventions: A Diplomatic Approach to the War on Adjectives and Adverbs

Perhaps the greatest problem with brief writing is that lawyers start by writing a brief.

We have read hundreds of briefs. So we think we know what a good brief looks and sounds like. That bias impedes us.

Most of what we read is not well written. Professors do not choose cases because they are well written. Westlaw and LexisNexis do not sort cases by writing caliber. And most briefs have mediocre or subpar writing. So our challenge is not mirroring what we spend most of our days reading.

Oddly, writing advice makes writing well harder. We learn writing as a series of rules or convenient lists of “pet peeves” — don’t splint infinitives, avoid the passive voice, never start a sentence with “and,” etc.[1] These rules accomplish their goals in the sense that they avoid egregious errors. But the rules preventing you from writing a horrible brief paradoxically prevent you from writing a great one.

Think For Yourself

Overcoming the impulse to write a formulaic brief requires a unique solution. That solution is more than revising rules. It is rebuilding how you think about writing, what you imagine when you start drafting a brief.

Enter First Principle Thinking. “First principles thinking is the act of boiling a process down to the fundamental parts that you know are true and building up from there.”[2] This concept gained popularity in engineering as a way to innovate.[3] For example, one reporter described Tesla’s chief designer using this concept: “The idea is to avoid thinking by analogy — let’s make this car look like that car, just sort of different or better — and instead deal with problems by stripping them down to the core and working your way up.”[4]

First Principles Thinking can and should apply to brief writing. To start, when trying to write a brief do not think of it as a brief. Think of it as you trying to persuade someone through a written document. Then build from there.

The next series of articles looks at the conventions holding you back. The articles apply First Principles Thinking to the rules limiting your writing. First up, the war on adjectives and adverbs.

Adjectives and Adverbs

If you needed to write a persuasive document, would you start by banning yourself from using whole categories of thousands of words? Of course not. You would, and should, use any words that help. Yet time and again we are told to cut adjectives and adverbs.

Misuses and Concerns

Critics of adjectives and adverbs have good reasons for concern.

The primary concern is the “show don’t tell” principle. Too often briefs assert a factual or legal conclusion without sufficient support. Red flags include sentences that use “clearly” or “obviously” to assert anything is true.[5] Other common violators are “conclusory,” “patently,” “cursory,” “baseless,” “unfounded,” “unsupported,” “frivolous,” “blatant,” and “vague.”[6] Instead of asserting a conclusion, briefs should provide the evidence and let the audience reach the conclusion itself.[7] So under the “show don’t tell” principle a writer replaces “Plaintiff has engaged in dilatory tactics” with “Plaintiff has missed three deadlines for responding to interrogatories.’”[8] And “the defendant brutally, viciously and repeatedly drove an enormous hunting knife into the victim’s chest and then callously left her to bleed to death, slowly and painfully” becomes “the defendant stabbed the victim five times in the chest with a hunting knife and then left her to die.”[9]

Another concern is redundancy. Sometimes briefs couple adjectives and adverbs with a fact. Here’s a simple example: “a gigantic one ton pumpkin won the blue ribbon.”[10] We all know how big pumpkins normally are, so “gigantic” is redundant with “one ton.” If the amount of giganticness is important, include the precise weight. If it is not, then “gigantic” makes the point.

Lastly, readers dislike adjectives and adverbs that mischaracterize the underlying facts by exaggerating or minimizing the truth. Did the defendant really “race home” when he went 56mph in a 55mph zone? Claiming a teacher “repeatedly attempted to sabotage and undermine the principal” goes too far when she only twice asked about budget cuts during faculty meetings. Likewise, stating a defendant got into a “brief scuffle with a bar patron” seems misleading when the defendant broke a bottle over the patron’s head and repeatedly kicked him, breaking six ribs and causing a head wound that needed twenty stiches. The problem here is a combination of the above points. Sometimes the underlying facts, standing alone, make the point. But other times, adjectives and adverbs are useful summaries as long as you choose the right words that do not overstate or understate what happened.[11]

These points are good well-reasoned advice. But none of these concerns warrant an editing manhunt. Just because adjectives and adverbs can be used poorly (as any word can be) does not mean that they always are or that they can never be used effectively.

Using Adjectives and Adverbs Effectively

“Many lawyers lament that legal writing squelches their creativity. It doesn’t need to.”[12] Adjectives and adverbs play critical roles in English; they can play those same critical roles in legal writing too. Take a look.

Example 1

A First Amendment challenge to a conviction for selling videos of animal cruelty did not stop then Solicitor General Elena Kagan from using adjectives and adverbs.

Law enforcement agents purchased several videos from respondent through the mail. The videos contain scenes of savage and bloody dog fights, as well as gruesome footage of pit bulls viciously attacking other animals. Agents searched respondent’s residence pursuant to a warrant and found other videos and dogfighting merchandise, as well as sales records establishing that respondent sold videos to recipients throughout the United States and in foreign countries.

. . .

The videos capture the entire grisly process of the animal’s being crushed to death, and they often show the woman continuing to crush the animal after it has died, until all that is left is a “bloody mass of fur.”[13]

Kagan converts the “show not tell” principle to “show and tell.” Her adjectives and adverbs characterize facts later described. But they are not redundant with the facts, nor are they a blatant appeal to emotion. The legal analysis pivots on a balancing test weighing the government interest against the speech’s expressive value. So these charged words embody the government’s interest: “a societal consensus that, although animals are often used for utilitarian purposes, they are living creatures that should be ‘treated in ways that do not cause them to experience excessive physical pain or suffering.’”[14] The characterizations don’t risk exaggerating the truth. Here, there was no dispute about whether the video content was vile; the dispute was about whether the constitution protected such content.

Example 2

In 2017 the Colorado Attorney General’s office won the Best Brief Award from the National Association of Attorneys General.[15] The winning brief was a Petition For a Writ of Certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. It too used adjectives and adverbs effectively.

Instead, the Tenth Circuit has adopted its own novel approach to the Guarantee Clause. If that approach stands, Colorado will be the first state in the country to be required to prove, to a federal judge’s satisfaction, that it is adequately republican.

. . .

If Guarantee Clause claims are now justiciable, there is no shortage of creative lawyers and academics standing ready to embroil states and federal courts in an endless stream of litigation on questions that, before now, would have been resolved through the political process.

. . .

By drastically shrinking the Raines rule and making it merely an exception to Coleman—rather than vice versa—the Tenth Circuit created a second split, this time with two other federal circuits.

. . .

Whether state legislators are permitted to lure federal courts into disputes like this one is an important question, as the Court recently recognized in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, No. 13-1314. As important as that case is, however, the implications here are even more significant.

The Tenth Circuit based its jurisdiction on the alleged injuries of just three of Colorado’s 100 legislators. This is a significant step beyond the situation the Court faces in Arizona State Legislature, where the entire legislature, acting as an institution with one voice, filed a suit to protect its power to draw election districts.

Whatever the outcome in that case, decisive action by this Court will still be needed. Here, the Tenth Circuit extended legislative standing far beyond the facts of Arizona State Legislature, allowing a tiny minority of the Colorado General Assembly to sue the Governor, who is standing in as a surrogate for the voters who enacted TABOR.[16]

Then-Solicitor General Daniel Domenico, and his team, used adjectives and adverbs selectively and effectively. They often appear in topic or concluding sentences. Notably, far from altering the truth, here they often increase a description’s accuracy: not just shrinking but drastically shrinking, not just a legislature’s act but the entire legislature’s act, not just a minority but a tiny minority. Other times they are fair and shorter characterizations of the facts: “an unpredictable but likely large amount of litigation” becomes an “endless stream of litigation.”

Example 3

Ross Guberman found several briefs using adjectives and adverbs effectively:

Indeed, [Calvin Klein International] was delighted to enjoy the business of Wal-Mart, the biggest discounter of them al.

Sunbeam intentionally played fast and loose with its accounting numbers to hoodwink Wall Street.[17]

Conclusion

When people tell you to strip all the adjectives and adverbs from your brief, what they are really saying is they do not trust your judgment to use adjectives and adverbs effectively. Prove them wrong.

Adverbs and adjectives are where great advocacy lives.


[1] See George D. Gopen, The Sense of Structure: Writing From the Reader’s Perspective 3-7 (Person Education Inc. 2004) (use tools not rules). See also id.at 149-55 (chapter titled “‘Write the Way You Speak’ and Other Bad Pieces of Advice”).

[2] See James Clear, “First Principles: Elon Musk on the Power of Thinking For Yourself,” https://jamesclear.com/first-principles (last visited February 17, 2018).

[3] See Mayo Oshin, “Elon Musks’ ‘3-Step’ First Principles Thinking: How to Think and Solve Difficult Problems Like a Genius,” The Medium, August 30, 2017, https://medium.com/the-mission/elon-musks-3-step-first-principles-thinking-how-to-think-and-solve-difficult-problems-like-a-ba1e73a9f6c0.

[4] Matthew DeBord, “The secret to how Tesla gets its cars to look absolutely fantastic,” Business Insider, December 29, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/how-tesla-designs-cars-to-look-so-good-2017-11/#it-was-holzhausen-not-musk-who-was-the-budding-superstar-back-in-the-late-2000s-1.

[5] See Charles Bird & Webster Kinnaird, “Objective Analysis of Advocacy Preferences and Prevalent Mythologies in One California Appellate Court,” 4 J. App. Prac. & Process 141, 153 (2002) (“Readers notice and are bothered by . . . use of adverbs such as ‘clearly’ and ‘obviously’ in place of logic or authority.”); Roger J. Miner, “Twenty-Five ‘Dos’ for Appellate Brief Writers,” 3 Scribes J. of Legal Writing 19, 21 (1992) (“Eliminate adverbs such as clearly and obviously. If things are so clear or obvious, why do we still have a legal dispute on our hands?”).

[6] “Let nouns and verbs make your argument. Clearly, patently, obviously, literally, and egregiously make your points seem muddled, uncertain, unclear, nervous, and defensive.” Ross Guberman, “Five Resolutions for Litigators,” Legal Writing Pro Blog, https://www.legalwritingpro.com/articles/five-resolutions-litigators/.

[7] See Ross Guberman, Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates 57-67 (Oxford University Press 2d ed. 2014).

[8] Ross Guberman, “Five Resolutions for Litigators,” Legal Writing Pro Blog, https://www.legalwritingpro.com/articles/five-resolutions-litigators/.

[9] Daniel Klau, Appealingly Brief: The Little Book of Big Appellate Tips (Or How to Write Persuasive Briefs and Excel at Oral Argument) 41-42 (2015).

[10] See AnneClaire Stapleton, “What it takes to grow a massive prize-winning pumpkin,” CNN, October 7, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/07/living/massive-pumpkin-tricks/index.html.

[11] For example, replace “Plaintiff makes numerous amorphous and conclusory arguments” with “Although Plaintiff insists that X, Y is the law.” Ross Guberman, “Five Resolutions for Litigators,” Legal Writing Pro Blog, https://www.legalwritingpro.com/articles/five-resolutions-litigators/.

[12] Guberman, supra n.7 at 191.

[13] Brief for the United States at 4; 17-18, United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. 460 (2010) (internal record citations omitted) (underlining added). This example is courtesy of Ross Guberman, “Five Resolutions for Litigators,” Legal Writing Pro Blog, https://www.legalwritingpro.com/pdf/elena-kagan.pdf.

[14] Id. at 22 (quoting Congressional report).

[15] Erin Lamb, “Colorado Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman and Solicitor General Frederick Yarger Accept 2015 “Best Brief Award” From the National Association of Attorneys General,” June 18, 2015, https://coag.gov/press-room/press-releases/06-18-15.

[16] Petition For A Writ of Certiorari at 3; 20-21; 29; 31-32 , Hickenlooper v. Kerr, 135 S.Ct. 2927 (2015) (record citations omitted) (underlining added).

[17] Guberman, supra n.7 at 191-99.

 

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 worked as a law clerk to the Honorable David J. Richman of the Colorado Court of Appeals before becoming Staff Counsel at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, LLP. Michael also serves as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Golden.

Proactively Manage the Financial Risks of Ethics Violations

By Karen A. Hammer, Esq., LL.M.[1]

Many business people say, “if you can’t work harder, then work smarter.” They focus on increasing profitability by either increasing revenue (while holding down costs) or decreasing costs (even when revenues are level). Even if you cannot increase your gross revenue, you can most likely decrease costs by proactively managing foreseeable risks.

OARC’s Lawyer Self-Assessment Program provides tools to help lawyers work smarter by anticipating and managing risk.

Why I’m a Fan of Self-assessment

When fielding calls for the Colorado Bar Association’s Ethics Hotline, I talk to some lawyers who don’t know how to evaluate and manage ethics risks. Attendees at ethics CLE I teach sometimes incorrectly assume ethics rules are merely “aspirational.” Those lawyers who treat ethics rules as “aspirational” still face ethics risks, but are blind to opportunities to manage those risks.

These misunderstandings exist among all experience levels and across practice areas.

That’s why I enthusiastically answered Attorney Regulation Counsel Jim Coyle’s request to join a Supreme Court subcommittee on proactively managing ethics risks. In late October 2017, Colorado’s OARC rolled out the first-in-the-nation ethics self-assessment program for lawyers to voluntarily and confidentially evaluate risks.

Understanding Risk

Transactional lawyers often help clients manage risk – parties voluntarily apportion certain risks contractually. Litigators routinely help their clients influence who bears the cost when the risk of harm has “blossomed” into actual or perceived damage to private or public interests protected by law.

Lawyers traditionally consider themselves the ones who give advice, but maybe we could learn from the impact on our clients – and on our colleagues – of inadequate risk management.

What is Risk Management?

Some learned as youngsters to look both ways before crossing the street so that we don’t walk into oncoming traffic. That may have been our first risk management lesson.

OARC Self-Assessment Program

The self-assessment tool identifies ten select areas where lawyers can manage the risks of the substantive and practical aspects of the business of law:

  1. Developing competent practices
  2. Communicating in an effective, timely, professional manner
  3. Ensuring the confidentiality requirements are met
  4. Avoiding conflicts of interest
  5. File management, security, and retention
  6. Managing the law firm/legal entity and staff appropriately
  7. Charging appropriate fees and making appropriate disbursements
  8. Ensuring that reliable trust account practices are in use
  9. Access to justice and client development
  10. Wellness and inclusivity

Each module includes thought-provoking questions and resources to help us work smarter. After completion of each online module, the lawyer can receive an analytical report.

Confidentiality

OARC actively designed the tool so that lawyers can honestly participate in self-assessments without revealing to others weak spots in their practice or ethics compliance. More information is available online.

Liability Insurance is Not the Only Risk Management Tool

Violations of the external standards imposed on us as lawyers and as civilians can be expensive and cause reputational damage. To manage that risk, many lawyers purchase liability insurance.

If you have professional liability coverage, check your policy to determine the size of your deductible for your defense. Now make a list of the things you could spend your deductible amount on that would be more rewarding, interesting, or satisfying than defending against risks that could have been proactively managed and/or mitigated.

Read your policy thoroughly to determine other essential terms. For example, your policy may not cover illegal acts.

Lawyers should know better than anyone how much time goes into defense against claims – that time could be used for more productive or enjoyable purposes. Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather make proactive decisions about where you spend your time and money?

One Example

Here’s a specific self-assessment example from the Competent Practice Working Group (Cori Peterson (Office of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge), David Wollins (David H. Wollins, P.C.) and me).

Many competence questions help lawyers identify weaknesses and strengths in our own substantive areas of practice. But the self-assessment also prompts lawyers to identify circumstances we might not otherwise anticipate that could undermine competence.

Competence Objective 1 is “Ensure you have the legal knowledge and education to handle all new matters.” That seems straightforward at first blush.

Then the tool provides a series of best practices for you to consider, including Best Practice 1.3: “Assess whether you are familiar with the factual context and subject matter of cases you take” (emphasis added).

After each objective, the online tool refers to some relevant Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. For competence Objective 1, the tool also cites to “In re Shipley, 135 S. Ct. 1589-90 (2015) (a lawyer cannot delegate the duty of competence to a client).”

Going deeper, Objective 3 assesses whether you have the necessary resources to competently handle matters. Best Practice 3.5 prompts you to “Ensure your fees are adequate to support developing both the factual bases and the legal aspects of the matters you undertake.” You are then referred to “C.R.C.P. 11 (‘the signature of an attorney constitutes a certificate that he has read the pleading; that to the best of his knowledge, information, and belief formed after reasonable inquiry, is well-grounded in fact . . . .’).”

Rule 11 violations create financial risks; but, even without Rule 11 sanctions, ethics rules make false Rule 11 certifications potential discipline risks. Similarly, transactional lawyers also face external standards of care, such as securities laws governing legal opinions lawyers provide to investors and financial rating agencies to evaluate a potential investment. Insufficient due diligence creates direct financial risk under securities laws, and indirect financial risks from the professional disciplinary process.

OARC investigations can be triggered by request. Investigations can be uncomfortable, time-consuming, and potentially expensive, regardless of whether discipline follows.

Unlikely? Remember Boulder’s 1,000-year rain? In retrospect, well-maintained sump pumps weren’t “aspirational.”

Your Annual Check-up

OARC’s self-assessment is like your annual physical to gauge your medical condition or the financial snapshot your annual taxes provide. Why not click on the self-assessment link while renewing your annual attorney registration? http://coloradosupremecourt.com/AboutUs/LawyerSelfAssessmentProgram.asp

Upcoming CLE

On March 8, 2018, the Boulder County Bar Association will host its first CLE on OARC’s Lawyer Self-Assessment Program, “Sharpen Up: The Lawyer Self-Assessment.” For more information, click here.[2]

CBA-CLE hosted a program on the OARC’s Proactive Management-Based Program in December, “Proactive Practices: Maintaining Competence and Wellness in the Practice of Law.” To order the homestudy, click here: Video OnDemandMP3 Audio Download.


[1] Thanks to fellow Proactive Management-Based Program subcommittee member, Barbara K. Brown, Ph.D., for her insightful comments on this article.

[2] This article was updated on February 21, 2018 from the version initially published in the Boulder County Bar Association February e-newsletter to reflect more detailed information on the March 8, 2018 CLE.

 

Karen Hammer is the principal of Hammer-Law. Hammer is a member of the Boulder County Bar Association. She can be reached at hammer@hammer-law.comHammer has handled over two billion dollars of complex financial transactions involving businesses, government agencies, and quasi-governmental entities. She also does related types of litigation. A member of the CBA’s Professionalism Coordinating Council, Hammer is also co-Secretary of the CBA’s Ethics Committee. Hammer is a Hearing Panel board member for attorney discipline cases. She was Chair of the D.C. Bar’s Real Estate, Housing, and Land Use Section and an appointee to the White House and Congressional Commission on Character Building in Education.

 

A New Approach to Writing Facts, Part I

We are told fact sections should tell a story, as if such advice is self-executing. No one explains how to tell a story. Yes, we tell stories everyday. But when we do, they come out naturally and may not be very good. Writing a fact section is not natural and needs to be good.

Put aside storytelling. Consider a different approach: filmmaking. Think of any scene from a movie you enjoy. Let’s use TOPGUN, because as someone of intelligence and great taste you were probably thinking of it anyway. Why is the main character’s call sign Maverick? Why not Renegade or Creampuff? It’s Maverick because screenwriters chose that name. Just like a costume designer chose aviator sunglasses. And not just any aviators, dark lens aviators instead of silver lens. A set designer chose which planes and how many to have in the background. The director chose to have Tom Cruise on the left and shoot the scene from a high angle. And we are all indebted to the music director for hiring Kenny Loggins to play Danger Zone.

In every scene dozens of people made decisions. Those decisions shaped the audience’s perception and told the story. Those decisions are why Darth Vader’s cape is not yellow, why the ending of the Usual Suspects surprised you, and why you knew Scar was a villain before he killed Mufasa.

In a fact section you are the cast and crew. You control every decision. It’s empowering; you don’t need a special effects budget and there is no producer to answer to. Yet most attorneys fall short because most attorneys have no training in storytelling.

Part I of this article is Directing 101 For Attorneys. It explains what stories can do in a brief and how to create them. Part II (to debut next month) applies this advice to examples.

Rethink What Fact Sections Can Do For You

“If you let me state the facts, I will let you argue the law—and I will win.”[1]

Before you write a story you need goals: (1) Identify the facts a court needs to decide in your favor, (2) provide the relevant procedural background, (3) preempt facts that favor the other side, and (4) for appeals, discuss the lower court’s ruling. Most fact sections have these goals. Most fact sections achieve these goals. And most fact sections stink.

Why they stink is less clear. When discussing fact sections, judges often advise attorneys to give them a reason to turn the page; “it is not unconstitutional to be interesting.”[2] Fair enough. But with large caseloads and billing concerns, writing entertaining briefs for an audience paid to read briefs is not a priority for most attorneys. A more compelling reason is that these four goals do not advance your argument.

A good fact section gives context and focuses on the relevant facts so “the legal analysis and result look inevitable.”[3] “From the reader’s perspective, your legal analysis seems the only possible means of reaching a just result on the basis of the facts.”[4] The four goals above do not accomplish this. You need more. Fact sections should prime a judge to favor an argument or side. They can elicit sympathy for a character or raise questions about behavior. This is where stories come in.

How to Craft A Story

If you have not been to film school, creating stories is daunting. Below is the best explanation I have come across, which comes from Stephen Armstrong’s and Timothy Terrell’s Thinking Like a Writer.[5]

The basic elements of a story are characters, the opening situation, the closing situation, and the movement from the opening to the closing.[6] “With each [element], your job is to create inferences that point towards favorable conclusions about the nature of the acts and actors that make up the story.”[7] These inferences are powerful. The power of fact sections is that “[t]hese very different stories were created from the same facts by making different decisions about which to use and how to organize them.”[8]

Like a film crew, four choices shape these elements into a story:

  1. The Start: Where does the story begin?
  2. The End: Where does the story end?
  3. Perspective: Through whose eyes do we see the events unfold?
  4. Details: Which details do we include and where do we include them? Which details do we omit?[9]

The Start

Beginnings are critical.

Sometimes stories begin by introducing a character, the world from his or her perspective, and that character’s motives for later actions. Han Solo, James Bond, Willy Wonka, George C. Scott’s General Patton, Indiana Jones, and Full Metal Jacket’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman all have memorable introductions that prime the character’s later actions. The same principles apply to legal briefs. For example, a criminal trespass case might start with the defendant desperate, starving, and shivering, or with a family returning home to find a broken window.[10]  A trade secrets case might begin with a company introducing a revolutionary product for sale only to watch its chief scientist go to a competitor that introduces a similar product six months later. But the opposing brief might start years earlier with the competitor’s research and development team, and end with the new employee coming on board during the final stages of a product set for launch.

Other times effective stories start with context, not characters. Science fiction and fantasy movies do this all the time. There is no alien in the opening to Alien. Rather we see a giant ship with a skeleton crew floating in the void of space. The introduction establishes isolation, the last place you would want to encounter an alien with acid for blood. Lord of the Rings opens with a history of alliances and conflicts between humans, elves, and orcs; it introduces the ring but most of the main living characters come later. Bring this to your brief. Although we write about the real world, often it is a foreign world. Whether it is life in a gang-controlled neighborhood, a regulatory landscape, or how an industry works, there is a unique context. Armstrong and Terrell describe the case of a corporation accused of violating environmental regulations controlling pollutants released under certain weather conditions. Most writers would lead with what happened on the day of the violation. But a stronger opening might begin by describing how difficult it is to predict the weather.[11]

In most cases a story’s start should differ between sides. Imagine a car accident. Depending on who is being blamed, the story might begin with a description of the driver and his behavior (a character-based introduction), or a description of the intersection and weather (a context-based introduction).[12]

The End

The end of a story should reinforce the point. The criminal trespass case could end with a frightened defendant hiding in the bushes and being arrested, or with an intruder running out of a home.[13]

The end may go beyond the events that led to the lawsuit. It could lay the foundation for damages. So a trade secrets plaintiff might describe the plummeting sales or number of lost customers.  A victim’s hardships, the environmental impact, or reputational damage are all ways to end. Another option is the case’s effect on the client’s industry or the legal landscape.

Perspective

Conveying a perspective has two parts: who and how.

Who. Choose whose perspective to tell the story from. Often we choose one of the classic main characters like the plaintiff, defendant, or victim. But you don’t have to. The perspective could be from someone uninvolved with the events, like an expert witness or a detective. And it could be from someone on the other side of the case. In a case pivoting on intent, a prosecutor might tell the story from the defendant’s perspective to highlight the time he had to plan his actions; a plaintiff might do the same to show the warning signs before the negligent behavior.

Or the perspective could be from no person. You might adopt the legislature’s perspective to discuss a statute’s intent, or an agency’s perspective to describe a regulatory scheme. You could use a god’s-eye-view of the world to describe context, like a corporation’s organization or how a manufacturing process works.

Also consider whether the perspective will be consistent or whether it will change. You might begin with a god’s-eye-view of the world and then shift to a person’s perspective entering this world. Or you might start with the agency’s perspective in creating a regulatory scheme and then discuss your client’s view.

How. For most of us, to tell the client’s perspective we state the facts that client knew per that client’s testimony, deposition, sworn statement, etc. It looks likes this:

John became CEO of the company in 2001. The company entered the contract in January. The contract said all material facts were disclosed. It mentioned a $1 million debt. It did not mention a pending $3 million lawsuit. But John did not know about the lawsuit.

Stating facts your client knew does not necessarily tell the story from that client’s perspective. In fact, this example has three different perspectives.

Professor George Gopen explains that most people read a sentence as the story (i.e., perspective) of the main clause’s subject.[14] So “Jack loves Jill” is Jack’s story while “Jill is loved by Jack” is Jill’s story.[15] “Keep the grammatical subjects of your sentences the same for as long as you are telling that particular story. Then, by changing whose story the next sentence is, you will (silently) convey to your reader” a shift to a new story.[16]

So sentence structure defines perception. That is why in the above example there are three perspectives: John’s, the company’s, and the contract’s.

Avoid changing perspectives unintentionally. The compulsion to vary sentence structure (courtesy of our elementary school teachers) works against us. Rest assured, there are many ways to vary sentence structure while keeping the subject of the main clauses consistent. For example, both of these sentences are the defendant’s perspective:

The defendant chose to refuse the goods, even though the plaintiff delivered them on time.

Even though the plaintiff delivered the goods on time, the defendant chose to refuse them.[17]

Details

Identify the Necessary Facts

For a fact section you must know the law. The law identifies which facts a court must consider. For precisely this reason, many suggest writing the argument section first and the fact section last.[18] Public policies and equity may inform this decision too.

One caveat. Some hold Judge Aldisert’s view that, at least in an appellate brief, any fact you use in an argument section must be in the fact section.[19] The reason is that the fact section gives a court “an objective account of what occurred before the twist of advocacy is added to the cold facts.”[20] Perhaps in a single issue brief Judge Aldisert’s positon holds true. But modern writers have modified this approach.

“Do not burden the opening statement of facts with details relevant to a specific argument that you will develop in full later. Just state the basics.”[21] If your brief raises multiple unrelated issues, having mini-fact sections near each argument is easier for readers. Think of an appellate brief that raises pretrial, trial, and post-trial issues. The reader gets to the pretrial issue fact section on page four but does not see its corresponding argument section until page eighteen. Between those sections are pages of unrelated facts. Having a pretrial issue fact section right before its argument section makes your reader’s life much easier.

Cut Irrelevant Unnecessary Facts

A universal gripe is that fact sections contain too many facts.[22] But “too many” is the wrong phrase; it is not a numbers issue. It’s an issue with misleading a reader.

Fact sections cause problems when they suggest a fact is important when it is not. Readers assume you included a fact for a reason. The longer the reader searches for that reason the more confused the reader becomes. If a reason never comes, the reader gets confused and frustrated.

Here is a good example. At a recent CLE, one judge remarked that when she reads that police executed a search warrant at a particular address, she immediately begins to think the police searched the wrong home because why else would the address be relevant. When that is not the case, she is left wondering why the lawyer told her the address.[23] For precisely the same reason, dates, times, quotations, addresses, procedural history, locations, dollar amounts, weights, quantities, and proper names of people, places, entities, and pleadings are often irrelevant.[24]

A related problem is that fact sections fail to highlight key facts. If there are nine key facts and you tack on eighty more, those nine facts do not look essential. “Cutting clutter isn’t just about saving words. It’s also about turning down the noise so the signal shines through.”[25]

Applying these guidelines, look at Judge Posner’s edits to an opinion by Judge Wald.[26]

 

 

Judge Wald’s Opinion

 

 

Judge Posner’s Edit

 

Appellant Robert Morris was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to sell, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and § 841(b)(1)(B)(iii), and for using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking offense, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1). He appeals both convictions on the ground that the evidence was insufficient to support either charge. We reject both challenges and affirm the judgment below.[27] A jury convicted the defendant of possession of cocaine with intent to sell it, and of using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to a drug offense. The judge sentenced him to 130 months in prison.[28]
On December 11, 1990, officers of the Metropolitan Police Department executed a search warrant on a one-bedroom apartment at 2525 14th Street, N.E., in the District of Columbia. Upon entering the apartment, the officers found appellant seated on a small couch in the living room; they detained him while they searched the apartment. The search produced two ziplock bags containing a total of 15.7 grams of crack cocaine divided among 100 smaller ziplock bags, $500 in cash, empty ziplock bags, razor blades, and three loaded and operable pistols. Two of the guns were under the cushions of the couch on which appellant sat; the third was in a nightstand in the bedroom. The cocaine and the cash were in an air duct vent in the ceiling of the bedroom. In the drawer of a dresser in the bedroom, the officers found two birthday cards; appellant’s name was on the envelope of one, and the other was for a “son,” signed “Mr. and Mrs. B.G. Morris” and dated November 30, 1990. No address was on either. In a hallway closet, the officers found a laundry ticket dated December 3, 1990, and bearing the name “E. Morris.” There were no identifiable fingerprints on any of these items. The officers arrested appellant, who was indicted on two counts: possession with intent to distribute in excess of five grams of cocaine base and using or carrying a firearm in relation to the possession offense.[29] Police had a warrant to search a one-bedroom apartment. Upon entering they found the defendant sitting on a small couch in the living room. The search revealed drugs, cash, and drug paraphernalia, and also three pistols—two under the cushions of the couch and the third in a nightstand in the bedroom.[30]

 

Once you identify the necessary facts and cut all the excess facts, congratulations—you now have a timeline. But not a fact section.

Add Relevant Unnecessary Facts

Conventional advice strips a fact section to only what a court needs to rule.[31] This advice goes too far.

Think of a summary judgment motion. Think of that numbered list of materially undisputed facts. That list is not a story. If you delete the numbers and group the list into paragraphs, it is still not a story. So a fact section needs more.

Great fact sections contain helpful unnecessary facts. The difference from the previous step is that these, albeit unnecessary, facts have a purpose, a purpose that furthers the story even if it does not further the legal argument.

This concept is not new. We see it in judicial opinions. “I doubt it’s a coincidence, for example, that in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark death-penalty cases in the 1970s and ’80s, the justices who voted against death sentences said nary a word about the underlying crimes, while those who upheld death sentences sometimes sounded like they were writing smut fiction.”[32]

There is another role for relevant unnecessary facts.  Some facts neutralize a tangent on the reader’s mind. For example, you might explain a rare point of law, like how although the defendant acknowledged his prior convictions when he testified trial, that testimony is inadmissible at a post-trial habitual criminal sentencing hearing to prove those convictions.[33] Without this fact, a court may be left wondering why a defendant disputes the existence of prior convictions he admitted to.

Organization

“[S]ome writers assume that, if they organize facts chronologically, they are by definition telling a story. That is a damaging mistake.”[34]

Choosing which facts to include and exclude is not enough. Equally important is where the facts fit into the story.

Begin by choosing the key facts in your story. Then choose an organization that highlights those facts. For chronologies, the key fact is the sequence of events. If the case centers on who knew what when, or who did what first, chronologies work well. But be careful because chronologies deprive you of control. “Because the writer is locked into his chronological default, however, he has no choice but to insert the key [] facts wherever the chronology permits, blurring the emphasis they deserve.”[35] They also tend to “run[] out of control and drag[] irrelevant facts along.”[36]

Other kinds of key facts do not depend on sequence. Armstrong and Terrell frame these alternatives as who, what, where, and why. Who: people and descriptions of them, their motives, or their credibility. [37]  What: a thing, like documents and what they say, who they were sent to, or how they were drafted; a manufacturing process; a person’s mental state.[38] Where: a location, the conditions of an area; the weather. Why: an explanation or motive like alcohol, jealousy, greed, wet roads.[39]

These facts are best highlighted without a chronology. Just because an organization is not a chronology does not mean it is told backwards or out of order. It just means sequence and timing do not control the story. Such stories might have timeless sections that discuss context, like a corporate structure or the ecology of a marsh polluted by an oil spill.[40] They might have lengthy explanations about people, companies, or contracts before moving on to an event. Or they might explain the story out of order; they might begin at the end and then explain what led up to that event. They might switch back and forth between an event and the past (like The Godfather Part 2).

Conclusion

Fact sections are the most underused part of briefs. If you do not tell a story and if you do not tell the right story, your brief is weak. Elevate your fact section and you will elevate your brief.

Channel your inner filmmaker to craft the story that advances your argument and sets you up for success. The next time you read a brief, think about whether the fact section helps the argument. Analyze it from the director’s chair: where does the story start, where does it end, who is telling the story, which details does it include and omit, and how it is organized.


[1] George Gopen, “Controlling the Reader’s Perception of Your Client’s Story,” 38 Litigation 4, at 18 (Summer/Fall 2012), available at www.georgegopen.com/uploads/1/0/9/0/109073507/litigation_5_palsgraffian_perspectives.pdf (attributing quotation to Clarence Darrow without citation).

[2] Ruggero J. Aldisert, Winning on Appeal: Better Briefs and Oral Argument 168 (National Institute of Trial Advocacy 2d ed. 2003).

[3] Stephen V. Armstrong & Timothy P. Terrell, Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing 111 (Practicing Law Institute 3d ed. 2009).

[4] Id.

[5] See also Brian J. Foley & Ruth Anne Robbins, “Fiction 101: A Primer for Lawyers on How to Use Fiction Writing Techniques to Write Persuasive Fact Sections,” 32 Rutgers L. Rev. 459 (2001).

[6] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3. at 299. See also Aldisert, supra n. 2 at 168 (stories have characters, conflict, resolution, organization, a point of view, and a setting).

[7] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3. at 299.

[8] Id. at. 299.

[9] Id. at 300.

[10] See id. at 298; 300.

[11] Id. at 300.

[12] See Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 113-14.

[13] Id. at. 300 (“notice how the impact of the arrest differs dramatically then it comes at the end rather than the beginning. If the rest of the story has been carefully constructed, the arrest seems cruel and unjust, not a presumption to be overcome.”).

[14] George Gopen, Whose Story is This Sentence? Directing Readers’ Perceptions of Narrative, 38 Litigation 3, Spring 2012 at 17-18,

available at www.georgegopen.com/uploads/1/0/9/0/109073507/litigation_4_whose_story.pdf.

[15] George Gopen, “Controlling the Reader’s Perception of Your Client’s Story,” 38 Litigation 4, at 18, (Summer/Fall 2012), available at www.georgegopen.com/uploads/1/0/9/0/109073507/litigation_5_palsgraffian_perspectives.pdf.

[16] Id. at 19.

[17] Gopen, supra n. 14 at 17-18.

[18] See Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 297 (“To write a persuasive story, you have to think carefully about the framework of plot and character around which the facts will cohere.”). See also id. at 354 (“Present facts with an eye towards the law” by stating only the facts you need, addressing material facts harmful to your argument, and avoiding argumentative characterizations of the facts).

[19] Aldisert, supra n. 2 at 169-70.

[20] Id. at 169.

[21] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 354.

[22] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 297 (“The fact section of the brief or memorandum of law becomes an agglomeration of data that is not just unpersuasive, but downright painful to read.”).

[23] Elizabeth Harris, Judge, Colorado Court of Appeals, Presentation at Appellate Practice Update 2017 (CLE in Colo., Inc. Nov. 29, 2017).

[24] Ross Guberman, Point Taken: How to Write Like the World’s Best Judges 44-57 (Oxford University Press 2015) (applying this advice to judicial opinion writing); Ross Guberman, “Five Resolutions for Litigators,” www.legalwritingpro.com/articles/five-resolutions-litigators/.

[25] Ross Guberman, Point Taken: How to Write Like the World’s Best Judges 51 (Oxford University Press 2015) (applying this advice to judicial opinion writing). See also Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 301-03 (showing how too much detail prevents key facts from getting the attention they disserve).

[26] These examples come from Guberman, supra n. 25 at 45-47.

[27] United States v. Morris, 977 F.2d 617, 618 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

[28] Guberman, supra n. 25 at 45-47.

[29] Morris, 977 F.2d at 619.

[30] Guberman, supra n. 25 at 45-47.

[31] See also Guberman, supra n. 25 at 56; 77 (“if your legal analysis does not turn on one of these details, consider purging them from your fact or background statement . . . .”) (applying advice to judicial opinion writing).

[32] Id. at 60.

[33] C.R.S. § 18-1.3-803(5)(b) (2017).

[34] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 120. But see Aldisert, supra n. 2 at 169-70 (recommending always explaining facts chronologically). The dangers of default organizations applies to other sections of brief writing too. In fact, Armstrong and Terrell have a chapter titled “The Dangers of Default Organizations” discussing common defaults like tracking the history of your research and thinking, or tracking your opponent’s organization. Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 87-110.

[35] Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 113.

[36] Id. at 111. “[T]he writer usually seizes onto chronology as a drowning person onto a life preserver. But a chronology is not a story. Nor can you turn it into one by ‘spinning’ or characterizing the facts, or by adding a few more heart-wrenching details.” Id. at 297.

[37] See id.

[38] See id.

[39] See id.

[40] See Armstrong & Terrell, supra n. 3 at 111-12.

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 worked as a law clerk to the Honorable David J. Richman of the Colorado Court of Appeals before becoming Staff Counsel at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, LLP. Michael also serves as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Golden.

Enhance Your Brief With Visual Aids

Have you ever tried to describe a fence in a brief? How about a photo lineup, a property line, a crime scene, a trademark, a scientific process, a patent, a timeline, a trail of money, a web of subsidiaries, or a comparison under a multi-factor test? You have options. A picture is worth a thousand words. So use a picture and lower your word count.

Rarely used yet always appreciated are visual aids like charts, maps, diagrams, and pictures.[1] Some concepts are easier to understand pictorially.

Simple visual aids are best. Remember, visual aids are substitutes for less effective main text. They should be simple and self-explanatory. If they need explaining, they are not working. For example, do not describe a scene and then include a map that matches the description. Just use the map.[2]

If you are new to visual aids, do not fear. You do not need to be an artist or computer wizard. Although you must use care when designing the aid, it need not be elaborate or artistic. As you will see below, many are basic and occasionally even hand drawn.

Finally, even if the visual aid is part of the record, include it in the brief rather than just citing to the record. Keep the brief a cohesive unit with all the information a court needs to decide a case.

Here are some opinions that use visual aids effectively. They show courts using them for three reasons: (i) to orient a reader or visualize the scene, (ii) to make a comparison, and (iii) to summarize facts. Each example includes the paragraph introducing the visual aid.

Using Visual Aids to Orient a Reader/Visualize the Scene

Example 1: [3]

Busch also concluded that the trajectory of the bullet holes caused by the initial shots to both Baldwin and Turley were consistent with a shooter being located by the barstools and that the shots could not have been made by someone coming out of the men’s restroom. First, the bullet that caused Turley’s wound was found in the tavern’s east door. Had the bullet been fired by someone by the men’s restroom or walking along the south wall (as Ogryzek testified), the bullet would have had to change its course almost 90 degrees after striking Turley to end up in the east door. The diagram below reflects the tavern’s layout and locations of Marcia Woolley, Turley, and Baldwin at the time of the shootings.

Example 2: [4]

The following diagram shows the approximate relative relationship of the properties that we have described above. This diagram is for illustrative purposes only, and it is not drawn to scale.

Example 3: [5]

The court ordered that a deed transferring a right-of-way for a road from Digor to the county be reformed and that the defendants among others be permanently restrained and enjoined from interfering with the county’s or the public’s use and possession of the property described in the reformed deed. We affirm.

On December 1, 1953, defendant Digor filed a plat signed by him in which a proposed road across his land, represented by the segments A, B, C, and D in the diagram below, was designated ‘Digor Drive.’

Example 4: [6]

This writ of error presents a rather knotty problem and arises from the fact that a house was so constructed as to encroach about 2 feet on an adjoining lot. To aid in an understanding of the entire matter, there is set forth below a diagram, not to scale, which when considered in connection with the balance of this opinion will hopefully bring the dispute into focus.

 

Using Visual Aids to Compare

Example 1: [7]

¶ 42 And even if (1) defendant’s identity as the perpetrator of the crime had been at issue; or (2) modus operandi evidence were admissible in cases other than sexual assault or domestic violence cases to prove the crime’s actus reus, we would nonetheless conclude that evidence of the February drug deal was not admissible to prove defendant’s modus operandi. When we compare the February drug deal with the May drug deal in the chart below, we see that, although the two drug deals were similar in some respects, they lacked the striking similarities and distinctive methodology that the law requires to show that both drug deals were the handiwork of one perpetrator. . . .

Example 2: [8]

Figure 2 compares the Hawg sealed bearing pack (Figure 2a) and the Newsco sealed bearing pack (Figure 2b).

. . .

Fifth, a defense expert compared the Hawg design to designs that had been publicly available at that time. One of these was illustrated by U.S. Patent Application Pub. No. 2003/0015352 fig. 1 (filed July 17, 2001), which we compare to the Hawg design in Figure 3.

Example 3: [9]

When Baig saw a billboard advertisement for Diet Sprite Zero in September 2004, he contacted Coca-Cola to threaten litigation over its purported infringement of his mark. Below are pictures of “Diet Sprite Zero” and “Naturally Zero.”

 

Summarizing Facts With Timelines, Charts, or Flow Charts[10]

Example 1: [11]

The facts of the petitioner’s brutal sexual assault and murder of 25-year-old LaTausha Curry on January 21, 1999 have been set forth in detail in our earlier opinion and the opinion of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. We will not repeat them here. Some of the relevant dates have been set forth above. We repeat these dates and others in the timeline set forth below:

November 19, 1999: Johnson sentenced to death.
October 22, 2001: Johnson files state petition for writ of habeas.
January 30, 2002: Tex. Court of Criminal Appeals (“TCCA”) affirms Johnson’s conviction on direct appeal.
June 20, 2002: U.S. Supreme Court issues Atkins.
October 8, 2003: TCCA denies habeas relief.
February 11, 2004: TCCA modifies the “two-forum rule,” which required dismissal of a state writ or successive writ if a federal proceeding was pending, even if that proceeding was stayed. Ex parte Soffar, 143 S.W.3d 804, 804 (Tex.Crim.App.2004).
May 17, 2004: Johnson files first federal writ.
September 18, 2007: Federal writ denied by district court.
December 2, 2007: District court denies motion for new trial.
April 7, 2008: Johnson seeks COA from Fifth Circuit.
October 2, 2008: Fifth Circuit denies COA.
January 16, 2009: Execution date set for April 30, 2009.
March 9, 2009: U.S. Supreme Court denies cert to Johnson’s challenging the Fifth Circuit’s denying his COA.
April 28, 2009: Johnson attempts to file successive writ with TCCA based on Atkins claims.
April 29, 2009: TCCA denies subsequent writ because Johnson failed to make a prima facie case of mental retardation. Johnson files the current motion.

Example 2: [12]

On cross-examination, witness Nee frequently asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege. The chart below outlines the context in which these assertions were made:

Example 3: [13]

The ownership genealogy of the ‘236 and ‘578 patents is documented in the chart below.

Example 4: [14]

JWR operates four coal mines west of Birmingham, Alabama. The parties refer to the mines as Mines 3, 4, 5, and 7. Mine 3 is located in Jefferson County, Alabama, near Adger, Alabama. Mines 4, 5, and 7 are located in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. The number of layoffs at each mine and the percentage of workers affected are reflected in the chart below:

 

How to Create Visual Aids

Here are helpful resources on creating visual aids.

Designing charts and graphs

  • Gene Zelazny, Say It With Charts: The Executive’s Guide to Visual Communication (4th ed. 2001).

Creating flowcharts, charts, and graphs in Microsoft Word

  • Add A Drawing To A Document, https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Add-a-drawing-to-a-document-348a8390-c32e-43d0-942c-b20ad11dea6f (last visited August 23, 2017).
  • Saikat Basu, How to Create Stunning Flowcharts With Microsoft Word, http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/create-stunning-flowcharts-microsoft-word/ (last visited August 23, 2017).
  • Insert A Chart From an Excel Spreadsheet Into Microsoft Word, https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Insert-a-chart-from-an-Excel-spreadsheet-into-Word-0b4d40a5-3544-4dcd-b28f-ba82a9b9f1e1 (last visited August 23, 2017).
  • How to Add A Graph to Microsoft Word, http://www.wikihow.com/Add-a-Graph-to-Microsoft-Word (last visited August 23, 2017).

[1] “Wherever possible, use pictures, maps, diagrams, and other visual aids in your briefs. Some lawyers seem to think a word is worth a thousand pictures. The reverse, of course, is true. Seeing a case makes it come alive to judges.” Hon. Richard Posner, Effective Appellate Brief Writing, A.B.A. Litigation News (Spring 2010), https://apps.americanbar.org/litigation/litigationnews/trial_skills/appellate-brief-writing-posner.html. See also Ross Guberman, Point Made: How to Write like the Nation’s Top Advocates 293-94 (2d ed. 2014).

[2] Unlike brief writing, during a trial you might decide such repetition is useful to the jury.

[3] Woolley v. Rednour, 702 F.3d 411, 418 (7th Cir. 2012).

[4] Graham v. Jules Inv., Inc., 2014 COA 136, ¶ 13 (Colo. App. 2014).

[5] Bd. of Comm’rs of Grand Cty. v. Baumberger, 513 P.2d 1075, 1075–76 (Colo. App. 1973).

[6] Emery v. Medal Bldg. Corp., 436 P.2d 661, 662–63 (Colo. 1968).

[7] People v. Williams, 2016 COA 48, ¶ 42-43 (Colo. App. 2016).

[8] Hawg Tools, LLC v. Newsco Int’l Energy Servs., Inc., 2016 COA 176M, ¶¶ 27, 33 (Colo. App. 2016).

[9] Baig v. Coca-Cola Co., 607 Fed. Appx. 557, 558–59 (7th Cir. 2015).

[10] See also Stephen Armstrong & Timothy Terrell, Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing 127-30 (Practicing Law Institute 3d ed. 2008) (discussing use of lists and bullet points); Ross Guberman, Point Made: How to Write like the Nation’s Top Advocates 295-300 (2d ed. 2014) (same); Ross Guberman, Point Taken: How to Write Like the World’s Best Judges 73-77 (2015) (discussing same in an opinion’s Statement of Facts).

[11] In re Johnson, 325 Fed. Appx. 337, 339 (5th Cir. 2009).

[12] United States v. Newman, 490 F.2d 139, 144 (3d Cir. 1974).

[13] Rembrandt Data Techs., LP v. AOL, LLC, 641 F.3d 1331, 1333 (Fed. Cir. 2011).

[14] Int’l Union, United Mine Workers v. Jim Walter Res., Inc., 6 F.3d 722, 724 (11th Cir. 1993).

 

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 worked as a law clerk to the Honorable David J. Richman of the Colorado Court of Appeals before becoming Staff Counsel at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, LLP. Michael also serves as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Golden.

Use Quotations to Make a Point

Many lawyers fill briefs with quotations; too many quotations. A parade of quotations rarely helps readers. Here are some tips on when to use quotations and how to use them effectively.

Use Quotations Sparingly

Many briefs quote too often.[1] If you are analyzing the words in the quotation, use it. If the quotation has unique phrasing that pops, use it. But if you can say it better in your own words, don’t quote. Most of the time you can say it better and shorter by paraphrasing.[2]

Before

After

“Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain a ‘short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-78 (2009), quoting F.R.C.P. 8(a)(2). Complaints must contain a short and plain statement explaining why a claim succeeds. F.R.C.P. 8(a)(2).
“As the Court held in Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929, the pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,’ but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Although complaints do not require detailed factual allegations, they require more than bare accusations of harm. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).
“A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions’ or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Complaints must state more than labels, conclusions, or a claim’s elements. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

Weave Quotations Into Your Argument

Here are some stereotypical introductions to quotations:

  • As the Supreme Court held in Smith v. Jones, “. . .
  • According to Smith v. Jones, “. . .
  • The statute reads: “ . . .
  • As one case held, “ . . .

Cut these. They add nothing except words. After you cut them, the meaning of the sentence is unchanged.

Then do even more. Legal writing specialist Ross Guberman provides several ways to enhance your argument with quotations. Rather than letting a quotation stand alone, each method ties the quotes to your case.[3]

Method 1: Introduce Quotations By Explaining How They Support Your Argument[4]

Introduce a quote by telling readers what you want them to take away from it.

Regardless of the policy’s merits, courts defer to codified legislative policies: “It is not for the courts to enunciate the public policy of the state if, as here, the General Assembly has spoken on the issue.” Grossman v. Columbine Med. Group, 12 P.3d 269, 271 (Colo. App. 1999).

  • During trial the victim emphasized repeatedly his confidence in the defendant’s identity: [quotes with record citations]

Method 2: Link a Party in Your Case With a Party in the Quotation[5]

Often briefs summarize a case and then compare the cited case to the case at issue. Combine these steps.

  • Where, as here, the interpreter did not testify, the agents present did not speak Spanish, and no one could testify whether the “interpreter indeed read the Defendant each of his Miranda rights off of the card” or “what the Defendant said in response to each of these warnings,” then the government has failed to meet its burden and
    the court must suppress the post-arrest statements. United States v. Sanchez-Manzanarez, 2012 WL 315870, *8 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 2, 2012).

The prosecutor’s use of the term “lie” in closing argument is the exact conduct prohibited in Wend, where after reviewing the repeated use of “lie” in opening and closing arguments the Supreme Court held “a prosecutor acts improperly when using any form of the word ‘lie’ in reference to a witness’s or defendant’s
veracity.” Wend v. People, 235 P.3d 1089, 1096 (Colo. 2010).

Method 3: Link Your Case’s Facts with a Quoted Legal Standard[6]

You can use quotations to merge a statement of law with the facts of your case.

  • The late disclosure of Brady material shortly before closing arguments “meaningfully alter[ed]” the defendant’s strategy on critical issues like “how to apportion time and resources to various theories when investigating the case, [and] whether the defendant should testify,” which is precisely why “the belated disclosure of impeachment or exculpatory information favorable to the accused violates due process.” United States v. Burke, 571 F.3d 1048 (10th Cir. 2009).
  • Plaintiff’s claim that the defendant gave him a dirty look falls well short of the “high standard” for intentional infliction of emotional distress by outrageous conduct, because the conduct is not “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency.” Coors Brewing
    Co. v. Floyd
    , 978 P.2d 663, 665-66 (Colo. 1999).

 


[1] “A remarkably large number of lawyers seem to believe that their briefs are improved if each thought is expressed in the words of a governing case. The contrary is true.” Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges 127-28 (2008). See also Ross Guberman, Point Taken: How to Write Like the World’s Best Judges 140-47 (2015) (discussing use of quotations in opinions).

[2] “After you have established your major premise, it will be your reasoning that interests the court, and this is almost always more clearly and forcefully expressed in your
own words than in the stringing together of quotations from various cases. Such a cut-and-paste approach also produces an air of artificiality, even of lack of self-assurance. You want the court to develop confidence in your reasoning—not in your ability to gopher up supporting quotations” Scalia & Garner, supra n. 1 at 128. “Whether you’re a judge, advocate, or journalist, stringing together quotations is not ‘writing.’ A surgical strike with lean quoted language will often beat bulky block quotation bursting all over the page. And yet sometimes, when binding precedent is worded just right, even an economical judge will want to preserve the language in the original court’s own words.” Ross Guberman, Point Taken, supra n. 1 at 140.

[3] See also Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing In Plain English 101-04 (2d ed. 2013) (discussing how to weave quotes into a narrative); Ross Guberman, Point Taken, supra n. 1 at 121-126 (discussing how opinions draw analogies to cited authority).

[4] Ross Guberman, Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates 175-79 (2d ed. 2014) (applying strategy to block quotations); Ross Guberman, Point Taken, supra n. 1 at 140-41 (“For starters, don’t just dump the quote and run. Introduce a long quote the way you would introduce a stranger to a friend—by telling the friend about what they have in common, and why this new person might be interesting to get to know.”).

[5] See Ross Guberman, Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates 131-32 (2d ed. 2014).

[6] See id. at 133-34 (2d ed. 2014).

 

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 worked as a law clerk to the Honorable David J. Richman of the Colorado Court of Appeals before becoming Staff Counsel at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, LLP. Michael also serves as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Golden.

The Colorado Lawyer Self-Assessment Program

By Jonathan White, Esq., Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel

Do you need CLE credits? Check out Colorado’s new Lawyer Self-Assessment Program. The program allows you to self-assess your practice and identify areas of strength as well as areas for improvement. Colorado lawyers who participate in the program may claim up to three general and ethics credits. In addition, on Monday, December 11, 2017, CBA-CLE will host a 90 minute live seminar on the new program, “Proactive Practices: Protecting Client Confidences and Prioritizing Wellness to Run a Successful Practice,” where lawyers can claim an additional 2.0 general and 1.8 ethics credits (register here).

Lawyers can view and complete the self-assessments through the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel’s website: https://www.coloradosupremecourt.com/AboutUs/LawyerSelfAssessmentProgram.asp. An affidavit is available on the same page for lawyers to use to apply for CLE credit once they complete the self-assessment program. The program’s goals include helping lawyers better serve clients, instituting efficient, consistent law office management procedures, and allowing lawyers to reflect on whether they have procedures in place that promote compliance with professional obligations.

As a complement to this new initiative, CBA-CLE has hosted a series of lunch-hour CLE seminars devoted to the self-assessment program. The last in the series takes place Monday, December 11, beginning at noon. This seminar will explore proactive procedures that help lawyers comply with their duty to protect client confidences. It will also discuss lawyer well-being and why well-being is essential to a lawyer’s duty of competence. Register here for the December 11 program.

The Colorado Lawyer Self-Assessment Program arises out of a multi-year initiative of a subcommittee of the Colorado Supreme Court’s Attorney Regulation Advisory Committee. More than 50 practicing lawyers volunteered their time to identify ten areas of assessment and associated questions. The assessments draw from the collective professional experience of the subcommittee members. The ten areas of self-assessment include:

  1. Developing a competent practice;
  2. Communicating in an effective, timely, professional manner and maintaining professional client relations;
  3. Ensuring that confidentiality requirements are met;
  4. Avoiding conflicts of interest;
  5. Maintaining appropriate file and records management systems;
  6. Managing the law firm/legal entity and staff appropriately;
  7. Charging appropriate fees and making appropriate disbursements;
  8. Ensuring that reliable trust account practices are in use;
  9. Working to improve the administration of justice and access to legal services;
  10. Wellness and inclusivity.

The self-assessments are voluntary and confidential. The Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel does not receive any personally-attributable answers. The assessments offer links to the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct and to a variety of educational resources ranging from template forms to advisory opinions to articles on current professionalism issues.

Inadvertent Disclosure — Damage Control, Recipient Requirements, and More

EthicsInadvertent disclosure of privileged or confidential information is not a new problem for attorneys. However, email and the electronic age have widened the scope of inadvertent disclosure. What happens when you use your email’s auto-fill feature and accidentally fill opposing counsel’s name instead of your client’s? How about when you hit “Reply All” instead of only replying to one party, or when you reply instead of forwarding? These problems are the stuff of nightmares.

To address the problems created by inadvertent disclosure of privileged or confidential information, the Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee created Formal Opinion 108, adopted on May 20, 2000. Formal Opinion 108 contemplates that a lawyer who receives documents (“receiving lawyer”) from an adverse party or an adverse party’s lawyer (“sending lawyer”) has an ethical duty to disclose the receipt of the privileged or confidential documents to the sending lawyer. If the receiving lawyer realizes the inadvertence of the disclosure before examining the documents, the receiving lawyer has a duty to not examine the documents and follow the sending lawyer’s directions regarding disposal or return of the documents.

In 2008, the Colorado Supreme Court repealed and reenacted the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 4.4(b) provides that “A lawyer who receives a document relating to the representation of the lawyer’s client and knows or reasonably should know that the document was inadvertently sent shall promptly notify the sender.” Rule 4.4(b) applies to situations in which the sending lawyer accidentally provides privileged or confidential information to the receiving lawyer, such as when someone hits “Reply All” instead of forwarding to the client.

Rule 4.4(c) addresses a far less common scenario, when the sending lawyer realizes the disclosure prior to receipt by the receiving lawyer and contacts the receiving lawyer before the privileged or confidential information is viewed. Rule 4.4(c) requires the receiving lawyer to “abide by the sender’s instructions as to its disposition.” Comments [2] and [3] to Rule 4.4 expand on the receiving lawyer’s duties, including providing that as a matter of professional courtesy the receiving lawyer may inform the sending lawyer of the inadvertent disclosure.

Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(5)(B) also addresses inadvertent disclosure. C.R.C.P. 26(b)(5)(B) imposes on the receiving lawyer a mandatory prohibition on review, use, or disclosure of the information until the privilege claim is resolved, if the sending lawyer informs the receiving lawyer of the inadvertent disclosure. C.R.C.P. 26(b)(5)(B) differs slightly from Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(5)(B); lawyers who practice in both federal and state courts should familiarize themselves with the different rules.

On Monday, November 28, 2016, attorney Cecil E. Morris, Jr., will deliver a lunchtime presentation on inadvertent disclosure, which is available for one general CLE credit and one ethics credit. This program is a great way to learn about what to do in case you inadvertently disclose confidential or privileged information, and also what to do if you receive information inadvertently disclosed. Cecil will discuss the differences between the federal and state rules, and will also address the substantive areas of law most affected by inadvertent disclosure. Register here or by clicking the links below.

 

CLELogo

CLE Program: Inadvertent Disclosure – Professional Liability Series

This CLE presentation will occur on November 28, 2016, at the CBA-CLE offices (1900 Grant Street, Third Floor), from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. Register for the live program here or register for the webcast here. You may also call (303) 860-0608 to register.

Can’t make the live program? Order the homestudy here: MP3Video OnDemand.

The End of Law Firms? Legal Service Delivery in the 21st Century

3e5ee2a2014 marked the 100th anniversary of World War I – the “Tipping Point” wherein the automobile forever replaced the horse as the predominant form of ground transportation in the modern era. In the three decades that followed World War I, livery stables closed and buggy whip manufacturers went out of business.

The Great Recession of 2008 has served as a “Tipping Point” of its own sort for the legal profession, where alternative legal services delivery models – LegalZoom for consumers and Legal Process Outsourcing companies (“LPOs”) for corporations – now challenge the monopoly that traditional law firms once held for legal services delivery. Prices for legal services are plummeting in a free fall. Competition for clients is at an all-time high, even as U.S. law schools churn out 44,000 new lawyers a year into a 100% saturated legal market. Corporate clients in the current buyers’ market are increasingly demanding lower, fixed prices and value-based Alternative Fee Arrangements (“AFAs”) in lieu of hourly billing – making law firms bear the ‘risk of loss’ in uncertain but complex litigation and transaction matters – even as the costs of running law firms continue to climb. To survive, most law firms have already morphed from their 1980s ‘Pyramid’ shaped organizational structures into ‘Diamond’ shaped organizational structures staffed by experienced attorneys – with virtually no associates to ‘fill out’ the base of once ‘Pyramid’ shaped law firm. But some commentators believe that this ‘Diamond’ shaped organizational structure is only a temporary change – like the hull of a great ship that rises out of the water before the whole thing sinks. What if in our lifetime we are watching the end of law firms, just as our great grandfathers watched the end of livery stables? From ‘Pony Express’ to ‘Federal Express’…

In this thought-provoking CLE presentation, attorney Mark Lassiter presents his vision of how the legal profession can ‘rise like the great Phoenix out of the ashes’ of its current malaise – all without traditional law firms. He argues that, if current legal trends continue unabated, the historic law firms as we have known them must become extinct – with the largest dying last. He does NOT argue that lawyers will not practice together with each other in communities or associations. Rather, he argues that such associations will look different from the traditional law firms of the 20th Century, which still prevail (for now…). He predicts a day when future lawyers will collaborate and work together on legal matters in Cloud based, temporary ‘teams’– not based on law firm allegiances or employment, but rather on their own, specific expertise and skill sets. In other words, the ‘mission’ (not the ‘law firm’) will drive and determine the lawyers and staff recruited to a temporary legal team – allowing clients to ‘cherry pick’ the best, most qualified lawyers and legal staff for the clients’ unique legal matters – with all legal work tasks being monitored and controlled from secure, Cloud-based portals. Such arrangements will empower solo and small practice lawyers, ‘Soccer Mom’ and ‘Disabled Dad’ lawyers, and young, new lawyers as never before.

If you are a new, small, solo or part-time lawyer you won’t want to miss hearing how the coming decades may actually be the best yet for attorneys like you. Come and watch this thought-provoking presentation from one of America’s emerging legal thought leaders.

 

CLE Program — The End of Law Firms? Rethinking Legal Services Delivery in the 21st Century

This CLE presentation will occur on July 19, 2016, at the CBA-CLE offices (1900 Grant Street, Third Floor). Register online or call (303) 860-0608.

Can’t make the live program? Register for the live webcast here.

Attorney at Work—Mixing Cocktails with Legal Advice: Don’t

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Attorney at Work on April 19, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Mark3By Mark Bassingthwaighte

I can appreciate a well-crafted cocktail. But when I am in a situation where such beverages are being served, I never get involved in a conversation about someone’s legal problems. And I strongly encourage you to do the same.

Here’s a short story that explains why.

An associate at a law firm — not a litigator in any way — attended a social function and had a few more than she should have. She got involved in a conversation with another guest about a personal injury matter. In addition to sharing some generic advice, the associate also let the guest know there was still plenty of time to deal with the matter, saying the statute of limitations in that jurisdiction was two years. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to our heroine, there was an exception to the statute in play and the actual time to file suit was six months. The guest, relying on the advice, did not obtain legal counsel until after the filing deadline had passed.

The young lawyer and her firm were eventually sued for malpractice.

The Accidental Client

We all know drinking and driving can have serious consequences — when your judgment and reflexes are impaired, accidents can happen. Mixing cocktails and legal advice is similarly problematic. It’s too easy for a casual setting, coupled with a few adult beverages, to cloud your thinking. You may then find yourself dealing with an accidental client.

Malpractice claims can easily arise out of these situations, but the risk isn’t limited to cocktail parties. Casual conversations online with extended family members or friends and gatherings with members of your church congregation or other community organizations are all situations where you should proceed with caution.

You can’t overlook the office setting, either.

Should you be concerned about passing along a little casual advice in a conversation with a corporate constituent while representing the entity itself? How about discussing issues with beneficiaries while representing the estate, trying to help a prospective client out during that first meeting when you know you are going to decline the representation? Or what about being a good Samaritan by making a few suggestions on the phone to someone who clearly has a problem but really can’t afford an attorney? How about answering a few questions from an unrepresented third party?

The answer is, of course, yes — these are all situations that can easily lead to an accidental client.

“No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”

Old sayings became old sayings because they have a ring of truth to them.

I am always surprised by what attorneys say when they have to deal with a claim brought by an accidental client. Comments like “I never intended to create an attorney-client relationship,” “There was no signed fee agreement,” and “No money was exchanged so how could this be?” are common.

Guess what: It’s not about you! Typically, it is more about how the individual you interacted with responded to the exchange. If they happened to respond as if they were receiving a little legal advice from an attorney, and that response was reasonable under the circumstances, it can start to get muddy. Worse yet, if it was reasonably foreseeable that this individual would rely or act on your casual advice — and then, in fact, did so to their detriment — you may have a serious problem on your hands.

I share this not with a desire to convince you to keep quiet and never try to help someone. By all means, be helpful. The world could use a few more good Samaritans, and a desire to help others is a good thing as long as you stay the course. I share this because I want you to be cognizant of the risk involved whenever you decide to step into those waters.

Here’s the Bottom Line

Accidental clients are for real and there is no such thing as “legal lite.” So if you are enjoying a wonderful evening at a party, cocktail in hand, and find yourself conversing with another guest who has just learned you are an attorney and wants to “pick your brain,” don’t talk about legal issues you are not well-versed in. If you feel compelled to pass along a little advice, then remember to ask questions so you understand the entire situation. Just know that you may be held to the accuracy of that advice later on, so you might want to jot down a few notes as soon as you can.

Finally, know that it’s okay to say you’re not the right person to be asking, particularly after you’ve had a few.

That said, salute!

Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier, since 1998. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1150 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented numerous continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management and technology.  Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the ABA and currently sits on the ABA’s Law Practice Division’s Professional Development Board, the Division’s Ethics and Professionalism Committee, and he serves as the Division’s Liaison to the ABA’s Standing Committee on Lawyers Professional Liability. Mr. Bassingthwaighte received his J.D. from Drake University Law School and his undergraduate degree from Gettysburg College.

Contact Information:
Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq.
ALPS Property & Casualty Insurance Company
Risk Manager
PO Box 9169 | Missoula, Montana 59807
(T) 406.728.3113 | (Toll Free) 800.367.2577 | (F) 406.728.7416
mbass@alpsnet.com | www.alpsnet.com

ALPS offers up to a 10% premium credit for each attorney in a firm who receives 3 CLE credits annually in the areas of ethics, risk management, loss prevention, or office management. ALPS is a lawyers’ malpractice carrier endorsed by the CBA. Learn more at try.alpsnet.com/Colorado

Trait-Based Protection Under the ADAAA

roberto-corrada-fullBy Roberto Corrada, Professor
University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Professor Susan Carle of American University Law School thinks the “regarded as” prong of the ADA may be severely underutilized by plaintiffs seeking to challenge their termination. According to Carle, who delivered a lunch keynote address at the 2016 Colorado Bar CLE annual employment law conference, the ADAAA of 2009 amended the ADA in a way that greatly increased the potential effectiveness of the “regarded as” prong. The ADAAA, first, freed the “regarded as” prong of the requirement that the disability the employer regards an employee as having must significantly impair a major life activity. Employers now only have to “regard” an employee as having some impairment for the employee to be protected by the ADA. To balance this out, Carle emphasizes, the ADAAA did limit the “regarded as” prong a bit. So, the prong does not protect transitory or minor disabilities and the “regarded as” prong does not support requests for accommodation.

Professor Carle explains that it’s fairly clear now what is protected, but there’s a bit of ambiguity around how far the new protection goes. With respect to what is clear, if an employee has an injured back, but has a medical release to go back to work (can perform the essential functions of the job) and the employer says no, the employee is likely protected. Also, if an employee has an anxiety disorder and the employer finds the employee annoying (even though the employee can perform essential functions) and fires the employee, the employee is likely protected. Professor Carle, though, is interested in knowing whether the ADA might extend far enough to protect certain traits. For example, what if an employee has no diagnosed disability or has a disability that has not been disclosed to the employer? If the employer then looks at an employee “trait” that the employee possesses and “regards it as” a disability or impairment, is the employee protected by the ADA? For example, an employee suffers from depression and as a result fails to participate in workplace social gatherings or attends, but just sits in the corner. Is the employee protected from termination by the ADA “regarded as” prong?

Professor Carle believes that the ADA “regarded as” prong “can be of special help to persons with ambiguous or hidden impairments because it may very often be the very perception of ‘something weird/different/not right’ about the person that causes a negative reaction or discrimination rather than any limitation in relevant job-related abilities.” The big question is whether an employer who regards an employee as having a “social disorder” based on a trait is prohibited from acting on that trait in disciplining or terminating the employee? Does the trait have to be an effect of an actual disability or impairment? Professor Carle will attempt to make her case in an upcoming issue of the University of California Davis Law Review. Professor Carle’s argument does have some hope for unleashing the progressive potential of the ADA. After all, a foundational policy of the ADA is to have employers focus on the essential functions of the job in making employment decisions rather than indulging personal biases.

 

CLE Homestudy — Employment Law Conference 2016: Proactively Prepare for What Lies Ahead

This CLE presentation took place Wednesday, April 20, 2016, and Thursday, April 21, 2016. Order the homestudy here: CDMP3 audio.

 

Roberto Corrada, Mulligan Burleson Chair in Modern Learning and Professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, has devoted his scholarly attention to three primary areas: the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities; the public/private distinction in labor and employment law; and the scholarship of teaching and learning. A distinguished teacher, Corrada has been recognized for his innovative work in the classroom. He has received several awards, and was named a national Carnegie Scholar in 2000. He is also extensively involved in service work with local and national institutions, including chairing the board of the ACLU of Colorado in 1998 and helping form the Denver Urban Debate League, serving now on the Board of Directors.

Two Law Firm Hacks Should Be Scaring Your Firm Into Action

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Stuart Teicher’s blog, “Keeping Lawyers Out of Trouble,” on April 4, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Headshot-Stuart-TeicherBy Stuart Teicher

For years people have been warning that law firms of all sizes are major targets for cyber-criminals. If your firm didn’t take that seriously before, then there are two major hackings last week that should get your attention.

The Wall Street Journal reported that cyber criminals breached Cravath, Weil Gotshal, and several other unnamed firms (read the article here: http://on.wsj.com/1MzYlN2). The paper states that it’s not clear what (or whether) information was taken, but the focus is on the possibility of confidential information being stolen for purposes of insider trading.

The other major breach is so big that it has its own hashtag— search Twitter for #PanamaPapers or #PanamaLeaks.  According to Reuters, the target was a law firm in Panama who specializes in setting up offshore companies. Hackers stole data from the firm and provided that data to journalists who promptly revealed it to the public (read the article here: http://reut.rs/25GEy4X). The information allegedly reveals a network of offshore loans. According to the BBC, the stolen data reveals how the law firm, “has helped clients launder money, dodge sanctions and avoid tax” (read the BBC’s article here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-35918844). Political figures and friends of popular politicians are allegedly implicated, according to the report.

My concern is not about the obvious political ramifications. My concern is about the ethical ramifications to lawyers. The danger of hacking is real.

No report has implicated any type of ethical wrongdoing on the part of any firm. That needs to be restated and made abundantly clear: there has been no report of any evidence of ethical impropriety by any of the law firms mentioned in the news. I am bringing this to your collective attention because it should serve as a warning. Confidential client information was stolen from that law firm in Panama… which reminds us that we are targets.

All lawyers are targets. Small firms, large firms, in-house counsel, government lawyers, you name it. The bad guys know that lawyers are the custodians of valuable information and they are coming after us in a big way. The message for all of us is clear: you could be subject to an ethics grievance if you don’t take proper steps to secure your clients’ information.

The responsibility to protect our client information is nothing new. However, these recent events require us apply an increased sense of urgency to evaluating our compliance with that duty. Have you, or your firm, taken the necessary steps to adequately protect your clients’ information? Have you considered the fact that bad guys could be targeting you? What steps have you taken to counteract the potential piracy that could be aimed at your clients’ information?

You could be darn sure that someone is going to be asking those questions to the firms that were targeted in the hacks. Maybe you need to put yourself in their position and ask, “how would we fare if that review was directed toward us?”

Our duty of competence requires that we take appropriate steps to protect our clients’ confidential information. And remember that you, as the lawyer, have the primary ethical duty, not your IT people. Furthermore, various ethics opinions have held that, in some circumstances, the lawyer needs to understand the underlying technology itself.

If these issues weren’t on the front burner in your office before, these two hacks should be causing you to shift your priorities.

Quickly.

 

Save the Date!

Stuart Teicher will be at the CLE offices on Thursday, September 8, 2016, to present two ethics programs. Registration is not yet open, but mark your calendars and don’t miss these important programs.

 

Stuart I. Teicher, Esq. is a professional legal educator who focuses on ethics law and writing instruction. A practicing attorney for over two decades, Stuart’s career is now dedicated to helping fellow attorneys survive the practice of law and thrive in the profession. Stuart teaches seminars and provides in-house training to law firms/legal departments.

Stuart helps attorneys get better at what they do (and enjoy the process) through his entertaining and educational CLE Performances. His expertise is in “Technethics,” a term Stuart coined that refers to the ethical issues in social networking and other technology. He also speaks about “Practical Ethics”– those lessons hidden in the ethics rules that enhance a lawyer’s practice. Stuart writes the blog “Keeping Lawyers Out of Trouble.”

Mr. Teicher is a Supreme Court appointee to the New Jersey District Ethics Committee where he investigates and prosecutes grievances filed against attorneys, an adjunct Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School in Camden, New Jersey where he teaches Professional Responsibility and an adjunct Professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick where he teaches undergraduate writing courses. He is a member of the bar in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In 2014, he authored the book Navigating the Legal Ethics of Social Media and Technology (Thomson Reuters).

Bad Faith? Marijuana Inventory Is Insurable (For Now)

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on Above the Law on Monday, February 29, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Hilary-BrickenBy Hilary Bricken

I recently chaired a webinar about marijuana and insurance issues, and I have already been roped into doing another one. I am well aware of how cannabis and insurance are a legally charged combination, and I expect to see an increase of cannabis insurance cases very soon. A federal court in Colorado just came down with an important cannabis insurance ruling in the case of Green Earth Wellness Center, LLC v. Atain Speciality Insurance CompanyThe case involves a cannabis company that sued its insurance company for failing to pay on claims and for bad faith. It’s important to note that I’m not talking about a cannabis company seeking coverage on a general liability insurance policy for something like a slip-and-fall or for damage to grow lights. To the contrary, this case is a big deal because Colorado Federal District Court Chief Judge Marcia S. Krieger ruled on a summary judgment motion that the actual inventory itself (i.e., the cannabis) is insurable under a general liability insurance policy.

Green Earth, which operates a medical marijuana dispensary as well as a commercial cultivation facility, obtained a general liability insurance policy from Atain in 2012. A few days before securing that policy, “smoke and ash from [a nearby wild fire] overwhelmed [Green Earth’s] ventilation system, eventually intruding into the growing operation and causing damage to Green Earth’s marijuana plants.” Green Earth made a claim under its Atain policy for damage done to its plants. Atain then investigated the claim for several months, and denied the claim in July 2013. Also in July 0f 2013, Green Earth’s grow facility was robbed, and Green Earth filed another claim with Atain for the damage done to its facility by the burglars. Atain again denied the claim, determining that the damage done to the grow facility did not exceed the applicable deductible. On December 20, 2013, Green Earth commenced its lawsuit against Atain, asserting the following three claims:

(i) breach of contract for Atain’s failure to pay the claims Green Earth made under the insurance policy;

(ii) a bad faith breach of insurance contract claim under C.R.S. § 10-3- 1104(h)(VII); and

(iii) a claim for unreasonable delay in payment under C.R.S. § 10-3-1115.

Atain argued that it should be exempt from paying Green Earth’s claims because of a provision in the insurance contract excluding coverage for “[c]ontraband, or property in the course of illegal transportation or trade.” Atain also argued that “public policy requires that coverage be denied, even if the Policy would otherwise provide it.” In turn, Atain asked the Court to resolve two questions:

(i) Whether, in light of [Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Act], federal law, and federal public Policy, it is legal for Atain to pay for damages to marijuana plants and products, and if so, whether the Court can order Atain to pay for these damages; and

(ii) “Whether, in light of [those same authorities], the Policy’s Contraband Exclusion removes Green Earth’s marijuana plants and marijuana material from the Policy’s coverage.”

Atain argued that the answer to its first question is “no” and the answer to its second question is “yes.”

The first important point of the Court’s ruling is what law it applied to the insurance contract. That contract mandates that disputes “will be governed by the law of the state in which the suit is brought.” So, the Court applied state law — as opposed to federal law — which is huge as this meant that the Court did not throw out the policy altogether on the basis of its apparent illegality under federal law.

The Court then held that because the insurance policy failed to define “contraband,” and Atain failed to prove Green Earth violated Colorado’s marijuana laws, and because the federal government has been giving mixed signals about federal marijuana enforcement, the “policy’s “Contraband” exclusion is ambiguous. The Court then looked to the “intention” of the parties regarding coverage for finished inventory and harvested plants and found nothing in the factual record showing that Atain sought to specifically exclude such coverage. In fact, the Court found that Atain knew Green Earth was a cannabis business and yet it issued its insurance policy to Green Earth regardless of federal laws, without making any unequivocal exemption, even under the “Contraband” provision, for finished inventory or harvested plants.

Atain then sought to invoke the federal Controlled Substances Act to argue that its own insurance policy was technically an illegal contract. The Court’s response to Atain’s illegality argument was that “Atain, having entered into the Policy of its own will, knowingly and intelligently, is obligated to comply with its terms or pay damages for having breached it.”

This ruling is a big step forward for the enforceability of marijuana-related contracts and another nail in the coffin for the “illegal cannabis contract” theory. This ruling also highlights the paramount importance of the choice of law, jurisdiction, and venue provisions in a marijuana contract.

Hilary Bricken is an attorney at Harris Moure, PLLC in Seattle and she chairs the firm’s Canna Law Group. Her practice consists of representing marijuana businesses of all sizes in multiple states on matters relating to licensing, corporate formation and contracts, commercial litigation, and intellectual property. Named one of the 100 most influential people in the cannabis industry in 2014, Hilary is also lead editor of theCanna Law Blog. You can reach her by email at hilary@harrismoure.com.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on Colorado CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or Colorado CLE, and should not be construed as such.