“Point Made” Author Regales About Appellate Brief Writing

Ross Guberman is the author of Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates. Go here to read illinoisappellatelawyerblog’s review of Ross’s book. We liked it so much, illinoisappellatelawyerblog asked Ross to answer a few questions about appellate brief writing. Here is Part 1 of that Q&A.

Is brief writing important? If the court will do what it wants anyway, then why does it even matter what the lawyer says in the brief or how he or she says it?

I know there’s been some recent research suggesting that some appellate decisions fall on party lines (in employment-discrimination cases, for example, judges appointed by Democrats are more likely to side with employees than Republican judges are). But most cases are neither political nor ideological, and even in the ones that are, judges look to the briefs for guidance.

“In about 80 percent of all appeals, I reach a firm inclination just from reading the briefs,” said former Federal Circuit Chief Judge Paul Michel.

So yes, what the lawyer says matters very much. But what about the other part of your question? Does “how” we make those points matter? Perhaps the style or the presentation shouldn’t matter, but judges and clerks are only human after all. The easier and more engaging the read, the likelier they are to grasp the substance.

[Editor’s Note: The American Bar Association ran an article this week about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Alito’s public comment about the importance of the briefing process. Paraphrasing Alito, the ABA Journal wrote: “[O]ral arguments aren’t all that important, despite a popular belief to the contrary. Instead, he [Alito] asserted, what’s important are the briefs and the preparation.”]

What are the worst mistakes you see lawyers make in appellate briefs? What should lawyers never do or write in their appellate briefs?

Rather than talk about the really bad briefs or the truly unethical or sloppy lawyers, let’s talk about decent briefs from hard-working lawyers that could have been a lot better. Such “so-so” briefs have four main features:

• First, the lawyers spend too much time and too many words saying how wrong the trial court was or how erroneous or misguided their opponents’ positions are.

• Second, the lawyers fail to identify up front what former Third Circuit Chief Judge Ruggero Aldisert calls the “flashpoint of controversy”—the boiled-down version of the parties’ competing views on the law.

• Third, when cases are cited, the approach is like that of a news anchor: “this happened, that happened, and then the court said this about what happened.”

• Fourth, the style has a piled-on feel; the sentences and paragraphs just meander to and fro, with no real linear progression. Lots of sentences begin with “moreover” or “furthermore,” just so the lawyer has an excuse to write something else.

So what are the main characteristics of a good appellate brief?

OK, here are four! I’ll avoid the obvious ones like “be organized” or “have a good issue statement.”
• First, the lawyer sounds more like a passionate professor than an angry or indignant hired gun. You sound like you simply want to help the panel get the law right.

• Second, the lawyer uses the cases as a means to an end, not as an end in themselves. That means that you integrate the case law into your argument rather than the other way around.

• Third, the sentences have varied styles and lengths and structures. Many sentences include the word “although” or the phrase “even though”; they concede something about the other side’s position (or the trial court’s decision) but then explain why that concession shouldn’t carry the day.

• Fourth, the lawyer sprinkles in many fresh analogies, examples, figures of speech, and comparisons to bring the points alive.

Can you identify the elements of a good Fact section? In addition to the obvious – i.e., an adequate description of the facts – what should a good fact section accomplish?

The most important principle is “Show, Not Tell.” You need to purge your fact section of most adverbs, and also cut all phrases like “which illustrates” or “which reflects.” The facts must speak for themselves.

It’s also helpful to cut a lot of the dates altogether, or at least to replace them with phrases like “two days later.” Excessive dates are among the things that annoy judges most.

Use headings and subheadings liberally, and don’t be afraid to be a little creative or to write the headings in the present tense.
Also consider starting with an umbrella or overview passage that sets the stage, explains who the parties are, and previews what sort of story the court is about to read.

Can you identify the elements of a good argument section?

Let me share the best test of all, and one that only the nation’s very best appellate advocates pass. In each section, most or all of your paragraphs should begin with a reason the heading is true, and no paragraphs should begin with neutral observations on the dispute, the facts, or the case law.

The other key element is to invoke the sense of a dialogue, not a monologue. In other words, you really have to engage the counterarguments and tackle them head-on. Making everything sound one-sided and overly simple will ultimately backfire.

Part 2 of Ross Guberman on appellate brief writing to follow soon.