Brief Writing

On Tuesday, the D.C. Circuit benchslapped a gaggle of lawyers for filing briefs with excessive acronyms. The court’s per curiam order directed the parties to “submit briefs that eliminate uncommon acronyms used in their previously filed final briefs.”

Alas, attempts to comply with this order have raised a new problem — a problem that some readers saw a mile away….

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The D.C. Circuit to counsel: readable briefs or GTFO. From an order filed today:

Who are the parties and their counsel? Additional information and the full order, after the jump.

(Also note the UPDATES — in defense of the lawyers, and floating a theory about the judge behind the benchslap — added to the end of this post.)

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The defendants’ appeal brief is a gaunt, pathetic document (there is no reply brief). Minus formal matter, it is only eight and a half pages long. Brevity is the soul of wit, and all that, but still: the first seven and a half pages are simply a recitation of the history of the Georgia lawsuit, the settlement negotiations, and the present suit, along with questionable and irrelevant facts; and the tiny argument section of the brief — 118 words, including citations — states merely, without detail or elaboration, that the defendants do not possess the settlement funds and therefore can’t restore them.

– Judge Richard Posner, in an opinion ripping apart a brief submitted by David Lashgari, a Georgia lawyer attempting to appeal a contempt citation. Posner called Lashgari’s behavior “outrageous,” and his appeal “frivolous,” and issued a show-cause order as to why Lashgari should not be sanctioned.

(Keep reading to see Judge Posner’s entertaining opinion.)

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It’s so hard to judge yourself.

Deep in your soul you know that people who criticize you are idiots, and people who praise you are wise and sagacious.

How can you possibly tell if you’re any good at what you do?

I have the answer for you! I’ve created a litigators’ self-assessment test! Now you’ll know if you’re any good!

Here’s how it works: Take out the last brief you filed.

Do it. Now. You won’t learn anything if you don’t follow the rules.

Look at the first sentence of your brief. For about ten percent of the people reading this column, the first sentence of your brief says (and I quote) . . . .

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Danger, Biglaw Associates!

Contractors have been there before — an unnecessarily angry associate screaming at a room of temps muttering about when they were first-year associates. So what has got their panties in a bunch? Well, like most curmudgeons, it is change. The legal landscape is rapidly shifting, and one has to move with the tide or be swept away.

We frequently throw the term “Contract Attorney” around in this column, but there are a wide variety of tasks that are now considered contract work. As the tasks change, contractors encroach more and more on work traditionally thought of as an associate’s domain.

So what are the most typical contractor tasks, and how are they affecting the associates’ way of life?

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I took the train to Paris recently. (Sorry — I can’t help myself. I just love typing those words.)

That gave me an uninterrupted two hours to edit a document on the way to Paris and another uninterrupted two hours to edit a document on the way home.

The experiences couldn’t have been more different.

What’s odd is that it wasn’t the quality of the drafts that made the experiences different for me (the editor), but rather the quality of the reactions that I anticipated receiving from the authors.

How can that be? How can an editor enjoy revising one document and loathe revising another based solely on the anticipated responses to the edits? And what lessons might that teach the author (the person being edited)?

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Yeah, yeah: That title caught your eye.

I thought about titling this column “Litigation Aphorisms,” but who the heck would have read it?

So I went instead with the first of three critical things you should know about litigation, all of which I learned from Neil Falconer when I practiced at the 20-lawyer firm of Steinhart & Falconer in San Francisco back in the 1980s. (I also dedicated The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Neil. He wasn’t a “mentor”; he just accidentally taught young lawyers by osmosis what it meant to be a lawyer.)

Neil’s first aphorism was this: “Never tell a small child not to stick peanuts up his nose.”

Why does that matter?

Or maybe I should start with a more basic question: What the heck does that mean?

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What’s the difference between an ATL commenter and an ATL correspondent?

A commenter writes, “Screw you, Herrmann, and the horse you rode in on. And your wife, and your kids. And your grandma. And your cat.”

A correspondent writes a long, thoughtful email, like the one I received from a reader in Rochester, New York, who read my column, “On Tweedledee And Tweedledum, Esq.,” and accused me overvaluing good writing:

“In litigation, while writing is important, it is not paramount. Just as, or more, important are analyzing law and facts and knowing what claims or defenses to assert. Then developing a strategy for discovery – knowing what documents to ask for, where to search, what questions to ask at deposition – none of which requires much writing at all and certainly not great writing skill. Developing the facts – and developing them in a way to help and not harm your case – is often much more important than writing a great brief. Knowing what issues to dispute in discovery and which to cede is important. Negotiating skills are important. Legal research skills are significant. Then, if a case goes to trial, entirely different skills are needed. Using an example from your column, because a lawyer writes an excellent brief does not mean they know how to properly prepare a witness or question a witness. . . . Someone can write with great style and flair but use bad analysis, miss significant facts or fail to find an important case.”

I have two reactions: First, thanks for writing. And, second, maybe yes and maybe no . . .

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, Noah Messing of Yale Law School — author of the newly released book, The Art of Advocacy: Briefs, Motions, and Writing Strategies of America’s Best Lawyers (affiliate link) — explores how law firms might reassess how they select junior associates.

Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have hired thousands of employees over the last decade by relying on brain teasers such as “Why are manhole covers round?” and “How would you weigh your head?” One psychology professor concluded last year that this sort of “puzzle interview is being used with greater frequency by employers in a variety of industries.” Earlier this week, however, a top human resources executive at Google reported that his company had scrapped the practice, offering the following admission: “brainteasers are a complete waste of time.” Google realized that its tests failed to identify the traits that correlate with success. For instance, Google now seeks managers who are “consistent and fair,” even if they aren’t good at estimating how many golf balls can fit inside a school bus.

Law firms are overdue for a similar reassessment of how they select junior associates. And as a corollary, law students should pay attention to the skills that law firms ask them about.

Let’s start with the employers. Several years ago, I organized a focus group of partners from top-10 Vault firms. I wanted to learn which skills Yale Law should emphasize as we continue to modernize the way that we train our students. The partners (including two corporate attorneys) all said that legal writing was the most important skill for junior associates.

The simplest way to know how candidates write, of course, is to evaluate their writing….

Read more at the ATL Career Center….

I’ve finally plucked “big firm mediocre” out of my life.

First, I left Biglaw, so I’m no longer revising lifeless drafts that arrive either up through the ranks or from co-counsel.

Then, my corporation entered fixed fee deals for virtually all of its litigation work. We invited only firms that do good work to compete for our business, and the winners have performed as expected: No brief arrives at our doorstep until it’s been reviewed by someone who can write.

But we still have a few strays: There are cases in oddball jurisdictions or involving unusual specialties where we select counsel on an individualized basis. And we still have old cases lingering from before our fixed-fee days staffed by an assortment of counsel. Once in a long while, I still run into briefs written in the “big firm mediocre” style.

What’s funny is how consistent it is. Although the briefs address different subjects in different jurisdictions, and they’re written by different people, “big firm mediocre” constitutes its own distinct literary genre. Care to write in that genre (or assess whether you already do)? Here are the characteristics:

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