By William Wiley, March 1, 2017

When we teach our FELTG legal writing seminars, we sometimes we get a little pushback from attendees who disagree with our “philosophy.” I can understand that. Many of our seminar attendees are very smart people, some educated in the finest law schools in our country. They learned how to write many years ago. They’ve been writing with a comfortable degree of success since then. Why should they change their approach just because some FELTG instructor says that there’s a better way?

Well, maybe it would help to know that our “philosophy” is shared by some gosh-darned important people, people who are typical consumers of legal writing.  I was cleaning out some old files over the weekend and ran across an old legal writing article from a law journal. One of the contributors to the article was a US Court of Appeals judge who just happens to make exactly the same points we do at FELTG when we teach legal writing. Great minds, same paths … it always refreshing to know that really smart people reach the same conclusion that you do.

Here are some pointers from the 30-year old article, pointers that will serve as refreshers for those readers who have attended any of the FELTG Legal Writing seminars:

  • A judge’s eye fatigue and irritability set in well before page 30 of a brief. Keep your writing short and focused and avoid unnecessary language.
  • The law is dynamic and can even be exciting. There is no reason that a legal brief should be dull. Strive for good literature as well as attention-grabbing focus. Make the judge sit up and say, “Hey, this is well-written. Maybe this lawyer actually has something worth my time to read.”
  • Do not use footnotes. Thank goodness these things have in large part moved out of our business. The only exception is the footnoting to case law precedence and other legal authority that FLRA uses for the style of its opinions (a practice MSPB would do well to adopt). If it’s worth saying at all, it’s worth saying in the body of the document.
  • State issues clearly and simply. As noted in the article, “A judge simply does not have the time to ferret out one bright idea buried in too long a sentence.” As we teach in our seminars, if you have written a sentence longer than 30 substantive words, you probably have written too much.
  • A bad brief will make every conceivable argument and even some that are not conceivable. Focus. Focus. Focus. If you have more than three issues in an appellate brief, you probably have too many issues. Arguments gain no increased credibility simply because they are repeated using different words.
  • Write for the 12th grade reader. It makes you be focused, knowledgeable about the issues, and the judge will send you a Valentine’s Day card in gratitude. Seriously. 12th If a judge has to consult a dictionary to understand your writings, you have failed.
  • Your case should be stated simply in the opening paragraph. Do not start out with a list of facts and details until you have provided a framework on which to hang them. A good opening sentence to a first paragraph will start with something like, “We are bringing this appeal because …”
  • Our judge-author also cringes whenever she hears or reads words such as “clearly,” “plainly,” or “obviously.” Every time a judge sees these words, she suspects that the issue is not really clear, plain, or obvious.
  • Citations that are weak or do not support the proposition being put forward are deadly. A judge will doubt everything else you have to say if your citation mischaracterizes a precedent or a factual finding.
  • Don’t be afraid to make a concession if the facts call for it. Judges find such honesty refreshing and will give greater weight to the rest of your argument.
  • Although emotional arguments to a jury might carry the day, you should avoid emotional arguments to a judge, e.g., “This poor innocent supervisor did not reprise against the self-centered, selfish, egotistical whistleblower. He was just doing his job; a job he was hired to do by the American people, to make our country great again.” Judges are swayed by logic, not emotion.

If you’re interested in the full article, you can find it in the September 1988 edition of the ABA Journal. I’m sure you have it lying around your office somewhere. And if you’re interested in the circuit court judge who contributed her suggestions to the article, she’s moved on to another job, a job in which some say she is receiving the best medical care available in America today: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. [email protected].

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