September 25, 2018

The Grammar Dilemma: Which Rules Are Worth Knowing

“None of you are guilty” or “None of you is guilty”? Can I use “since” as a synonym for “because” or can I only use it to reference time? One space or two between sentences? Is it email or e-mail? Some people have strong feelings about these kinds of questions. But many exasperate “who cares?!”

We are lawyers. We are busy. We have limited time. When is it worth perusing a six-inch thick book to find a grammar rule? Almost never.

Nonetheless, to write clearly you need to understand the ambiguity of English grammar.

The Next Person That Recommends Strunk & White . . .

Since freshman orientation people have always told me to worship Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I’m pretty sure 98% of those people have never read the book. I’m equally sure 99% of the U.S. population has not. These statistics are not backed by data, just my gut. But in fairness, most of our grammar sense comes from our gut—if this phrase “sounds” right it must be right. Turns out, the Gut Theory of Grammar works pretty well. It works pretty well because there are no grammar rules. Let’s circle back to the Elements of Style.

Most people recommend the Elements of Style because other people recommended it to them. This daisy chain advice is so long no one remembers where it started. But surely the book gained credence for a reason.

Who were Strunk and White? They were co-chairs of the National Commission of American English created by President Nixon to develop consistency in how American students learned the language. Just kidding. There is no commission. Unlike France, the United States has no official body that determines language rules.[1] Strunk and White are two people who sat down to write a book about grammar. Strunk was a college professor who authored the original edition around 1919.[2] White, who authored Charlotte’s Web, revised the book in 1959.[3] Neither had unique authority to assert anything was or was not a rule.

But surely the wide acceptance of the Elements of Style gave it credence after-the-fact? Nope. It’s one thing to wear a t-shirt with a nerdy grammar pun like “Poor Grammar Makes Me [sic].” It’s a different level to publish an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” tearing into Strunk & White. But that’s what Professor Pullum did.[4] He describes Strunk & White as “grammatical incompetents” and their advice as ranging “from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense” that has “significantly degraded” students understanding of English.[5] Ouch. And he’s not alone. Others have called the book unsystematic, chaotic, and unhelpful.[6] But, to be clear, the book still has supporters.[7] And not everyone agrees with Professor Pullum.[8]

It’s Much Worse Than You Think

Even if the Elements of Style is not perfect (and presumably no other book is), the legal community might silently agree on certain rules. Putting aside obscure stylistic choices, surely we agree on essentials like what a word means? Buckle up.

Since time immemorial teachers and bosses pounced on subordinates for confusing “literally” and “figuratively.” Something is literally true when it can and did happen. It is figuratively true when it cannot or did not happen. So “When I heard the news my heart stopped” is figuratively true, unless after hearing the news my blood stopped circulating in which case it is then literally true. Only not. Consult a dictionary to discover literally and figuratively are sometimes synonyms. Merriam Webster has a persuasive article and video defending the definitions and explaining how authors can use “literally” hyperbolically to mean “figuratively.”[9] There’s an indie romantic comedy here where former antonyms become synonyms.

Here’s another skull-buster. Most of us bleed from the ears when we hear the word “irregardless.” A Pavlovian reflex shocks our system with feelings of valley-girl bastardized English. But oh yes, you guessed it. It is a word. In fact, one of Merriam Webster’s lexicographers (the people that write dictionaries) made a video defending it.[10] “Irregardless” means “empathically regardless.”[11] Oddly, the lexicographer recommends not using the word because so many people think it is not a real word.[12]

English grammar is a mess.

What to Do

We want our readers to find us credible and to understand what we write. But grammar rules are unclear. And we are not going to attach an appendix showing we correctly used a comma on page six.

Begin by accepting the inevitable. You usually have no idea what grammar rules your audience subscribes to. A judge might know a rule, not know a rule, or know a rule that is not a rule.

Next, adapt to your audience. To write clearly you need to know what grammar rules exist—real rules, discredited rules, misunderstood rules, all rules. Even with maximum effort, you cannot avoid breaking some rule believed by someone somewhere. But, with this understanding you can ensure your writing is clear.

When a Grammar Rule is Unclear, Strive For Clarity

When your writing implicates an unclear grammar rule, prioritize clarity. Consider the that/which rule:

The Safety Instructor asked the student to get the gas tank, which has red tape on it.

The Safety Instructor asked the student to get the gas tank that has red tape on it.[13]

In the first sentence there is one tank and it has red tape. [14] “Which” introduces additional information. [15] So, if the student were just told “Go get the gas tank” the student would return with the same tank because only one exists. [16] By contrast, in the second sentence “that” introduces essential information; there are multiple tanks and the instructor wants the one with red tape.[17]

But you cannot count on your reader taking away this distinction. Your reader may not know the rule or may have the rule reversed. So if it is important to understand there were multiple tanks and the instructor asked only for the one with red tape, you need to do more.

You have a few options. You can avoid the that/which rule by rewriting the sentence more explicitly: there were eight tanks and the instructor asked for the one with red tape. Or you can add a clarifying sentence: When the student went into the storage room he saw a pile of tanks and grabbed the one with red tape.

Ultimately, awareness of ambiguous grammar cannot prevent a reader from enforcing a random grammar belief. But that awareness can help us ensure the reader gets our message.

If Most Judges Believe a Rule, Follow It

Recall the figuratively/literally and irregardless examples. There we learned some grammar beliefs are incorrect. But you being correct according to an external source is irrelevant to your case. Write for your audience. If the court has certain grammar preferences, follow them.

Think of a basic rule indoctrinated into you with no reasoning behind it. A rule like capitalize the first letter of each sentence. if you stopped capitalizing those letters, would it confuse anyone? would readers misinterpret your words? nope. but everyone would notice and everyone would think you are wrong. the historical reason for this rule doesn’t matter. even if you found a source saying it is unnecessary, the result will only hurt you.

Although few courts publish elaborate style guides, you can discern grammar preferences from court opinions, former law clerks, and CLEs with the judges. Use that information to preserve credibility and avoid disruption.

Conclusion

When it comes to grammar, write for clarity not accuracy.


[1] George D. Gopen, The Sense of Structure: Writing From the Reader’s Perspective 196 (2004).

[2] William Strunk Jr.; E.B. White, The Elements of Style xiii-xviii; 87 (4th ed. 2000); Geoffrey K. Pullum, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. 1 (April 17, 2009), available at http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/50years.pdf.

[3] Strunk &White, supra n. 2 at 1; Pullum, supra n. 2 at 1.

[4] Pullum, supra n. 2 at 1

[5] Id. Pullum didn’t let it go after only one article: Geoffrey K. Pullum, “The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style,” 26 English Today 2, 102 (June 2, 2010), available at http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/LandOfTheFree.pdf.

[6] Tom Goldstein and Jethro K. Lieberman, The Lawyers Guide to Writing Well 9-10 (3d ed. 2016).

[7] See, e.g., “The 100 Best Nonfiction Books: No. 23 The Elements of Style by William Strunk and EB White (1959),” The Guardian, available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/04/100-best-nonfiction-books-all-time-elements-style-william-strunk-eb-white.

[8] To see how some of Pullum’s critiques may be overstated, see Ross Guberman, “Did Strunk & White Give “Stupid Advice?,” available at https://www.legalwritingpro.com/articles/strunk-white-give-stupid-advice/ (last visited May 20, 2018).

[9] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Did We Change the Definition of ‘Literally’?,” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/misuse-of-literally (last visited May 20, 2018); Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Literally- Merriam Webster- Ask The Editor,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ai_VHZq_7eU (last visited May 20, 2018).

[10] Business Insider, “‘Irregardless’ is a real word – you’re just using it wrong,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEJ2HF3xuFk (last visited May 20, 2018).

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] This is a variation of the rake example provided in Gopen, supra n. 1 at 5.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

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.

Forging New Writing Conventions: Treat Active and Passive Voice Equally

Seemingly everyone loves critiquing passive voice. Haters have to hate.

The common advice to “avoid passive voice” is wrong. Actually, it’s worse than wrong. It’s a pyramid of wrongs. The advice, as a conclusion, is wrong. So are its premises. Most advice-givers misunderstand what passive voice is. And they misunderstand its advantages and disadvantages. Much of the time, people heard this advice before, never thoughtfully considered it, and repeat it without much thought. So it’s closer to being a rumor than it is to being good writing advice. Open your mind for the next five minutes and let’s fix this.

Even if you know nothing about passive voice, “avoid passive voice” facially makes little sense. It can only have two effects. Some listeners apply it wholesale without discretion, mechanically searching and destroying passive voice. For them, the advice strips away judgment and any notion passive voice could ever help. To other listeners the advice makes no sense. You don’t have to be an evolutionary linguist to know the passive voice must exist for a reason, and we use it when we speak without any problems. These listeners ignore the advice, never develop judgment, and never learn when passive voice helps and when it hurts. Both outcomes are unfortunate and avoidable.

The best advice is much more complicated. Fortunately, as lawyers we specialize in complicated.

What is Active Voice and Passive Voice?

If you are confident you know the difference between active and passive voice then you should be equally confident you are probably wrong. Let’s start with the easy part.

English has two voices: active and passive. In the active voice, the subject performs the verb’s action.[1] In the passive voice, the verb’s action is performed on the subject.[2] These definitions are more clear when you compare sentences written in each voice:[3]

 

Active Passive
The teacher told us to use the active voice. We were told to use the active voice.
The police questioned the suspect. The suspect was questioned.
I made a mistake. Mistakes were made.

 

Critically, the passive voice is not the use of particular verbs. Many people try to spot the passive voice by looking for variations of the verb “to be” like “was,” “were,” “is,” “would,” or “had been.” Wrong. This sentence uses active voice: “He was unhappy the provision of services had been so slow.”[4] Don’t feel bad. Everyone does it. Take this example from the New Yorker describing Bernie Madoff’s sentencing:

Two sentences later, Madoff said, “When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients from the scheme.” As he read this, he betrayed no sense of how absurd it was to use the passive voice in regard to his scheme, as if it were a spell of bad weather that had descended on him.[5]

Where precisely is the passive voice here? “It would end” and “I would be able to” are active voice.

The best way to find the passive voice is to track the definition above: when the verb does not modify the doer. If you want to be more specific, look for variations of “to be” “to get” or “to have” plus a past-tense verb (a past-participle to be precise). [6]

The Classic “Advantages” of the Active Voice

Card-carrying members of the active voice fan club praise it as more concise, concrete and not abstract, lively, and the default expectation of readers.[7] None of these are always true. As a simple example “The motion was denied”(passive) is four words when “The court denied the motion” (active) is five.

What is true is that the active voice is, by definition, clear about who the actor is. When that feature is important to you, use it.

Which is Better: Active or Passive?

Neither. Neither is superior or inferior to the other. There is no rule favoring one, with delineated exceptions permitting the other. There is no presumption or preference.

Passive voice and active voice are two options. They serve different purposes. Use whichever serves your purposes.

When to Use Passive Voice

“If you always avoid the passive, you sacrifice one of the subtlest, most versatile tools the English language affords us.”[8] Sometimes passive voice is helpful, like in these somewhat overlapping scenarios:[9]

The actor is obvious: [10]

“The motion was denied.” We know a court denied it. “Defendants are entitled to summary judgment when . . .” We know the law is what entitles a party to summary judgment under certain circumstances. No one is confused.

The actor is irrelevant or distracting:[11]

“The subpoena was served January 19th.” By who? Phil, Barbara, Subpoena Services Inc.? Does it matter? If what matters is when the subpoena was served then there is no need to introduce a new and irrelevant character to your story.

The actor is unknown:[12]

“Stonehenge was built around 2200 BCE.” Or, if your defense is that the crime occurred but the defendant did not do it, “The victim was murdered later that night.”

To emphasize the action over the actor/To tell the story of the recipient of actions:[13]

In a suppression motion you write “Mr. Smith was ordered to freeze and hand over identification, then his suitcase was searched, and then he was handcuffed.” Who did these things? Government actors. Which government actors? The defense does not care. Whether it was Officer Jones or Agent Smith is irrelevant. The defense neither needs nor wants the court to keep track of that. Passive voice keeps the focus on the defendant and things being done to him.

For the same reason a tort plaintiff’s story might read “Stevens was told it was safe by the defendant. Stevens was told it was legal by the defendant. Stevens was told he could trust the defendant. Stevens was lied to by the defendant.”[14]

This concept can be a bit tricky. But it is perhaps the most important voice decision an author makes. Passive voice emphasizes different actors in your story than active voice. George Gopen provides this helpful illustration:

Smith had notified Jones on the morning of April 7 concerning the lost shipment. (emphasizes Smith’s actions)

On the morning of April 7, Jones had been informed of the lost shipment by Smith. (emphasizes Jones’s knowledge)

The lost shipment had been disclosed by Smith to Jones on the morning of April 7. (emphasizes moment of lost shipment)[15]

This principle can also help when one subject is the recipient of multiple unrelated actions. “Securities agreements are sophisticated contracts. They are usually drafted by specialized attorneys. They are subject to particular regulations. They should only be signed after a careful read.” The passive voice keeps the focus on securities agreements.

To connect one sentence with the next sentence:[16]

“The committee presented the award to Tom. Tom was arrested the next day.”[17] In this couplet the direct object of the first sentence becomes the subject of the next.

To emphasize the end of a sentence.

“When he walked through the door, the victim was already dead.”[18]

To create abstraction:

“In the eyes of the law, all persons are created equal.”[19]

For irony:

“The passive voice should not be used.”

Conclusion

Don’t prefer or avoid passive voice. Don’t prefer or avoid active voice. They have different effects. Choose the voice that suits your needs.


[1] “Active,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/active (last visited May 15, 2018).

[2] “Passive,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/passive (last visited May 15, 2018).

[3] These examples are from “5 Writing Rules Destroyed By The Dictionary,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary (last visited May 15, 2018), https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/5-writing-rules-destroyed-by-the-dictionary/never-use-the-passive-voice.

[4] Ross Guberman, “Are You Passive-Aggressive?,” Legal Writing Pro (last visited May 15, 2018), https://www.legalwritingpro.com/articles/are-you-passive-aggressive/.

[5] Nancy Franklin, “The Dolor of Money,” The New Yorker (March 23, 2009), https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/03/23/the-dolor-of-money. See Jan Freeman, “What We Get Wrong About the Passive Voice,” The Boston Globe (March 22, 2009), http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/03/22/active_resistance/ (pointing out error in New Yorker article).

[6] Guberman, supra n. 4; “Active and Passive Voice,” Wheaton College (2009), https://www.wheaton.edu/academics/services/writing-center/writing-resources/active-and-passive-voice/.

[7] See Bryan Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English 36 (2d ed. 2013); Richard Wydick, Plain English For Lawyers 27-31 (5th ed. 2005).

[8] George D. Gopen, The Sense of Structure: Writing From the Reader’s Perspective 153 (2004).

[9] See also id.; George Gopen, “Who Done It? Controlling Agency in Legal Writing- Part I,” 39 Litig. 2 (Spring 2013), available at https://www.georgegopen.com/uploads/1/0/9/0/109073507/litigation_7_controlling_agency_pt2.pdf; “Active and Passive Voice,” supra n. 6.

[10] See generally Tom Goldstein and Jethro K. Lieberman, The Lawyers Guide to Writing Well 144 (3d ed. 2016).

[11] Wydick, supra n. 7 at 31. Accord Goldstein & Lieberman, supra n. 10 at 144.

[12] Goldstein & Lieberman, supra n. 10 at 144.

[13] George Gopen, “Why the Passive Voice Should be Used and Appreciated- Not Avoided,” 40 Litig. 2 (Winter 2014), available at https://www.georgegopen.com/uploads/1/0/9/0/109073507/litigation_10_why_the_passive_should_be_used.pdf; Goldstein & Lieberman, supra n. 10 at 144-45.

[14] Gopen, supra n. 13.

[15] Id.

[16] Goldstein & Lieberman, supra n. 10 at 144-45; Gopen, supra n. 8 at 65-70.

[17] See Wydick, supra n. 7 at 31 (using a variation of this example).

[18] Id. (using a variation of this example).

[19] Id.

 

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.

Forging New Writing Conventions: Parentheticals (And How We Use Them)

Putting citations after sentences sacrifices readability for credibility. The convention has critics but is here for the immediate future.[1] Its sister convention is putting parentheticals after citations. This convention rarely gets any discussion. It should.

When to Use Parentheticals

Every law student learns to use parentheticals. They take different forms. Often they are incomplete sentences explaining a point about the source, usually starting with a present participle—an “ing” word like “holding,” “finding,” or “concluding.” We use them often. Why?

Any answer includes a need to convey information about the source. But why convey that information in a parenthetical? This is the question you need to answer before using one.

There is a difference between each of the following:

“Summary judgment is only appropriate if the moving party establishes that no disputed material facts exist.” People In Interest of S.N. v. S.N., 2014 CO 64, ¶ 16.

People In Interest of S.N. v. S.N., 2014 CO 64, ¶ 16. (“Summary judgment is only appropriate if the moving party establishes that no disputed material facts exist.”)

Summary judgment is only appropriate when there are no disputed material facts. People In Interest of S.N. v. S.N., 2014 CO 64, ¶ 16.

People In Interest of S.N. v. S.N., 2014 CO 64, ¶ 16 (summary judgment is only appropriate when there are no disputed material facts).

When you include a parenthetical you make a series of choices. First, you choose to include rather than exclude information. Second, you decide how to phrase the information, either quoting, paraphrasing, or a little of both. Third, you determine where to put the information, either in the main text before the citation or in a parenthetical after the citation. That placement has consequences.

Those consequences come from how we read briefs. We all learn to write using parentheticals. But we do not necessarily learn to read parentheticals, or at least not to read them how the writer intends.

Here’s the writer’s perspective. The information is important enough to go in the brief, and belongs at the source’s hip.

But this placement has other consequences to the reader. The parenthetical is separate the main text. Because it stands apart, the reader must connect the main text information and the parenthetical information. A parenthetical placement may also suggest the information is less important than the main text. Indeed, part of Bryan Garner’s argument for putting citations in footnotes is that important authorities should be named and discussed in the main text, and “discussion of governing and persuasive authorities is enhanced because it can no longer be buried in parentheticals following citations.”[2] Plus, a parenthetical lengthens the citation, often by several lines. That lengthening causes greater disruption. Remember, main text citations trade readability for credibility. The longer the citation, the less readable the pros, the more unbalanced the trade.

Applying these factors, here are some scenarios that tempt readers to skip or gloss over parentheticals.

The main text suggests the parenthetical is unnecessary: If the main text sentence states an obvious or well-known proposition, a parenthetical seems unnecessary. Readers are always more tempted to skip portions that seem unnecessary. For example:

The statute of limitations for a bad faith tort claim is two years. Brodeur v. American Home Assur. Co., 169 P.3d 139, 151 (2007) (dismissing claim filed over two years and ten months after cause of action arose).

We all know what a statute of limitations is and the consequences of filing a tardy claim. The information in the parenthetical adds nothing. But that’s just the reader’s guess.

The reader’s triage comes before reading the parenthetical. Based on the main text sentence, the reader determines the parenthetical probably adds nothing and therefore is not worth reading. So the takeaway is to make sure the main text sentence preceding the citation sets up the need for a parenthetical. Great information does you no good if the reader never reads it. Secondarily, make sure the parenthetical’s information adds to your brief so when the reader does get to it, the information advances your argument.

The parenthetical is very long: Lengthy parentheticals rarely work. They are too much. They squeeze lists of facts or reasons into a run-on incomplete sentence. At the same time they drag out a citation, which disrupts the main text’s flow and often makes it difficult to find the next sentence. A common example is a parenthetical that tries to single-handedly apply a multi-factor test. For instance, a parenthetical applying People v. Humphrey’s twelve-factor assessment to determine if a Miranda waiver is valid.[3] Or a single parenthetical discussing how Effland v. People found five factors weighing against a finding of custody and fifteen in favor.[4] A parenthetical about one factor may be appropriate. But a discussion of the entire analysis or several factors is too much for one incomplete sentence bracketed by parentheses.

When to use parentheticals, what information to put in them, and how to convey that information requires judgment. But odds are you overuse them. To refine your judgment analyze People v. Brooks, which has over sixty case citations and only one with a substantive parenthetical explanation.[5] People v. Howard-Walker has over one-hundred case citations, only four with explanatory parentheticals.[6]

How to Phrase Parentheticals

An equally valid question is why we start parentheticals with a present participle (those “ing” words). Law school taught us this probably because the Bluebook rule on parentheticals says explanations not quoting the source “usually begin with a present participle.”[7] Why the Bluebook takes this position is unclear. Even if you live and die by the Bluebook, “usually” means not always.

Given the widespread use of “ing” words, would cutting them throw the reader or alter the meaning? See for yourself.

For all these reasons, we conclude that the issue was sufficiently preserved. See People v. Syrie, 101 P.3d 219, 223 n.7 (Colo.2004) (an issue is preserved where the trial court has “adequate opportunity to make factual findings and legal conclusions on any issue that is later raised on appeal”)

. . .

In all of them, the courts considered extrinsic circumstances only to determine whether the images were created to be viewed for sexual gratification. See Batchelor, 800 P.2d at 604 (that the defendant concealed the photos of his naked nine-year-old daughter, took the pictures at night, posed the child, and took the pictures secretly showed that he took the pictures for his own sexual gratification); T.B., ¶ 34 (that the defendant had texted the victims a picture of his erect penis when he solicited nude pictures from the victims showed that the pictures taken by the victims were intended for the defendant’s sexual gratification); Grady, 126 P.3d at 222 (the defendant produced photos of teenage models that he also posted on a website entitled “True Teen Babes”); Gagnon, 997 P.2d at 1284 (in deciding whether pictures taken by the defendant of a teenage girl in sexually suggestive poses and clothing were produced for sexual gratification, the court considered that “the pictures of the victim were found along with a large collection of other material the trial court described as adult pornography”).”

. . .

Images that are otherwise constitutionally protected images could become unprotected based merely on the subjective response of a particular viewer. See Batchelor, 800 P.2d at 602 (pictures depicting nude children for legitimate purposes are constitutionally protected).[8]

This excerpt shows “ing” words are often not needed. Commonly used present participles like “holding,” “finding,” and “concluding” are usually unnecessary because they are implied. In fact, it is difficult to imagine an example where such words make a difference. Take a look:

Smith v. Jones, 123 F.2d 345 (12th Cir. 2018) (finding statute of limitations barred claim).

Smith v. Jones, 123 F.2d 345 (12th Cir. 2018) (statute of limitations barred claim).

By contrast, openings like “comparing,” “reaching,” and “distinguishing” add meaning to a parenthetical.

You can decide when a present participle adds to the parenthetical. But omit them when they are unnecessary. Break the habit.


[1] Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges 132-33 (Thomson/West 2008).

[2] Id. at 132.

[3] 132 P.3d 352, 356 (2006).

[4] 240 P.3d 868, 875 (2010).

[5] 2017 COA 80.

[6] 2017 COA 81M.

[7] The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation R. 1.5(a)(i), at 59 (Columbia Law Review Ass’n et al., eds., 19th ed. 2010).

[8] People v. Henley, 2017 COA 76, ¶¶16, 28-29.

 

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.

Prison for Breach of Duties of Candor?!

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

The legal world is complicated. Our law practices vary greatly, as do our personalities and political interests.

But many lawyers can agree on one goal — avoid prison.

Alex Van Der Zwaan Gets Thirty Days

Dutch solicitor Alex R. van der Zwaan (English Solicitors Regulation Authority I.D. 433369) is the first person sentenced in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation, receiving thirty days of incarceration. To be clear, Mr. van der Zwaan has not, at least as far as has been publicly disclosed, been disciplined by the Solicitors Regulation Authority that controls his license. See http://solicitors.lawsociety.org.uk/person/7115/alex-rolf-van-der-zwaan.

The sentencing memorandum from the United States case brought against Mr. van der Zwaan (United States v. van der Zwaan, 1:18-cr-00031-ABJ (D. D.C. 2018)) is an interesting and quick read. If you’re curious, look here: https://bit.ly/2Hb5lQk. (Mr. van der Zwaan’s proposed Sentencing Memorandum can be found here: https://bit.ly/2q4recI.)

Aggravating and Mitigating Factors

The prosecution uses language that is similar to that used in disciplinary sanction proceedings, referring to “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors. If you’re not yet familiar with the factors that are used to determine the proper levels of discipline for lawyers’ violations of rules of professional conduct, you may be interested in the ABA Standards for Imposing Sanctions (https://bit.ly/2jCsuTR). These Standards describe aggravating and mitigating factors.

One interesting “aggravating” factor in Mr. van der Zwaan’s sentence to a 30-day term was that the “professional bar rightly expected candor” from him. Sentencing Memo at 5. This is a reminder of a frequently overlooked part of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct that allows these Rules to be used as standards that can be applied outside of the context of attorney discipline. See, e.g., Colo. RPC Scope [20] (“a lawyer’s violation of a Rule may be evidence of breach of the applicable standard of conduct”), available at http://www.cobar.org/For-Members/Opinions-Rules-Statutes/Rules-of-Professional-Conduct/Preamble-and-Scope.

But Still, Prison for the Duty of Candor?

Some might ask how Special Counsel Mueller could reasonably expect Mr. van der Zwaan to have a duty of candor during the investigation that was being conducted. The formal charge made against Mr. van der Zwaan was a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(2) — making a false statement in an investigation within the jurisdiction of the executive branch. Van der Zwaan Doc. 1 (Feb. 16, 2018) at 1.

Section 1001 explicitly excludes parties and their counsel from criminal prosecution thereunder. 18 U.S.C. § 1001(b). He was a solicitor in the London office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP. So, how did Mr. van der Zwaan get charged with a violation of § 1001?

Mr. van der Zwaan was neither a party nor counsel to a party when he made his false statements to the Special Counsel’s Office. Mr. van der Zwaan’s false statements resulted in his becoming a party to a criminal case. See https://bit.ly/2JjYDrT. He admitted that he received warning that “intentional false statements” by him during the investigation could lead to criminal charges. Van der Zwaan Doc. 9, ¶ 3 at 2, https://bit.ly/2GCETxM.

To be clear, the Sentencing Memorandum did not refer to any of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which may not (or may) apply to Mr. van der Zwaan absent other facts not referred to here. Mr. van der Zwaan is licensed to practice in England, and the Sentencing Memorandum does not directly state whether the England’s Solicitors Regulation Authority Code of Conduct applies to false statements he made while being questioned in the District of Columbia by the Special Counsel’s Office.

But this statement that the “bar” may expect “candor” from lawyers is an example of an important part of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct that impose certain standards on lawyers even when they are not practicing law. See, e.g., Colo. RPC 8.4 (imposing a variety of standards, including the prohibition of dishonest conduct and of conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice), available at http://www.cobar.org/For-Members/Opinions-Rules-Statutes/Rules-of-Professional-Conduct/Rule-84-Misconduct.

If you haven’t reviewed Rule 8.4 in a while, Mr. van der Zwaan’s recent sentence of incarceration may pique your curiosity enough to take a look.  Our memory of the Rules and the fairly specific standards of conduct they impose on us as lawyers fades over time, yet our obligations do not.

Learn from Others

I’m a big believer in learning from the mistakes of others. Unfortunately for Mr. van der Zwaan, his misconduct provided the current lesson that inspired me to renew my own understanding of the duties of candor and how they apply in situations that some lawyers might not anticipate.

Some lawyers incorrectly continue to believe that their only duties are to their clients.

Be proactive — familiarize yourself with the rules and standards Mr. van der Zwaan has teed up for us all.


[1] A version of this article was originally published in Law Week Colorado on April 9, 2018, primarily omitting citations and hyperlinks, available at http://lawweekcolorado.com/2018/04/prison-breach-duties-candor/.

 

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.