Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Clear and Concise

Friday, September 19th, 2014

A good deal of our paralegal studies program at the University of Mississippi focuses on developing the ability to write clearly and concisely. (I am fortunate enough to have been given an internal grant from the Center for Rhetoric and Writing to improve  our ability to improve students’ writing ability.) It helps to explain why clear and concise writing is important before attempting to teach it. My explanation usually includes references to page, line, and word limitations in rules of procedure, but while the students read those limits, it seems students and many practicing legal professionals often do not believe the limits are enforced. That’s why I am passing on this story from

Judge scolds BP for squeezing extra lines into brief

Posted Sep 18, 2014 09:50 am CDT

By Debra Cassens Weiss

BP is on notice that a federal judge will be closely scrutinizing its briefs for excess words in litigation over the Gulf oil spill.

In an order (PDF) on Monday, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier said BP evidently abused a 35-page limit by slightly squeezing the spacing between the lines. The limit was already 10 pages longer than usual, and it called for a double-spaced brief.

As a result of the manipulation, Barbier said, BP exceeded the already enlarged page limit by about six pages. Slate and NPR have stories.

“The court should not have to waste its time policing such simple rules—particularly in a case as massive and complex as this,” Barbier wrote. “Counsel are expected to follow the court’s orders both in letter and in spirit. The court should not have to resort to imposing character limits, etc., to ensure compliance. Counsel’s tactic would not be appropriate for a college term paper. It certainly is not appropriate here.

“Any future briefs using similar tactics will be struck.”

BP is represented by several law firms, and Barbier did not identify the firm at fault. He does, however, reference the Pacer number on the offending brief, which was submitted under the electronic signature of Kirkland & Ellis lawyer J. Andrew Langan. A Kirkland & Ellis spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Langan said he would refer the ABA Journal’s request for comment to the appropriate person.

One comment states:

Instead of word processing tricks, I suggest go ‘old school.’ Consult an early version of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” and learn to write using fewer words.

I agree. I suspect Celia Elwell, The Researching Paralegal, also agrees, since she frequently posts articles such as this: Classic Writing Tips from C. S. Lewis


Judge Shoots Down Extra “n” in Canon

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Just yesterday I encouraged by students (it was the first day of all my classes) to check out the “Consequences of Sloppiness” category here as a way of emphasizing the necessity to cross-check our work for grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure and the like. I tend to focus initially on the misuse of apostrophes, which I find particularly irksome. Apparently the judge in this story from is particularly irked by the misspelling of “canon:”
Judge Scolds Levi Aron’s Lawyers for Inexperience, Facebook Posts and Misspelled Word
By Debra Cassens Weiss
A Brooklyn judge presiding over the murder prosecution of Levi Aron showed impatience with the defense lawyers on Tuesday.

Judge Neil Firetog grilled the lawyers “about their legal chops” and expressed concern that they don’t have the experience to try such a complex case, the New York Daily News reports. …

Firetog scolded the lawyers for complaining about press coverage of the case after giving media interviews and posting comments on Facebook. He even chastised the lawyers for misspelling “canon” in a reference to ethics, the Times says. “Two N’s means a cannon that shoots at something,” he said.

Given the seriousness of the charge in this case and the apparent concerns over whether the defense attorneys have the needed expertise to provide a defense, it does seem odd that the court would focus on the misspelling of one word. However, for my students and for practicing paralegals the lesson is that, even in the midst of very important matters, judges do notice even small errors and (apparently) can be adversely affected by them. Just another illustration of the importance of writing right.

“[A]nyone can make such an occasional mistake, but…”

Monday, July 18th, 2011

As you may already know the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected a suit by a Texas cheerleader who did not make the varsity squad, stating ““Reduced to its essentials, this is nothing more than a dispute, fueled by a disgruntled cheerleader mom, over whether her daughter should have made the squad. It is a petty squabble, masquerading as a civil rights matter, that has no place in federal court or any other court.” While several sources have focused on the case it self, ABA also notes that the court’s opinion comments harshly in a footnote on the grammar and spelling in the brief filed by the cheerleader’s law firm:

“Usually we do not comment on technical and grammatical errors, because anyone can make such an occasional mistake, but here the miscues are so egregious and obvious that an average fourth grader would have avoided most of them. For example, the word ‘principals’ should have been “principles.’ The word ‘vacatur’ is misspelled. The subject and verb are not in agreement in one of the sentences, which has a singular subject (‘incompetence’) and a plural verb (‘are’).”

In particular, Smith criticized this sentence in the plaintiff’s opening brief: “Because a magistrate is not an Article III judge, his incompetence in applying general principals [sic] of law are [sic] extraordinary.”

These are the type of errors I see daily in student papers and all too often in documents prepared for submission to a court. As noted previously, writing right is important and there are consequences to sloppiness. (See the category of that name on this blog.)

There are, of course, also issues here regarding the decision of the lawyer to take this case not only to trial, but to appeal. While those decisions are ultimately the attorney’s, good lawyers will use paralegals as sounding boards during the decision process. Paralegals should speak up when given the opportunity (and often even when they are not), to provide some perspective in cases such as this. After all, it is likely the paralegal who will be expected to handle the client!

How to Write – Forms, Format, Formulaic

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

This is actually about a post on another blog entitled “How to Write a Statement of the Standard of Review in Five Simple Steps.” While the post give great step-by-step instructions for writing a statement of the standard of review, the approach is applicable to almost everything a paralegal is charged with drafting. In particular it comes with this advice,

Adding boilerplate language or copying and pasting from other appellate briefs does nothing to aid the court and can damage your credibility. The best practice is researching and specifically tailoring the statement of the standard of review to your case.

In short, forms and formats are fine, but being formulaic is not. Cut-and-paste works only if it is proceed and followed by sound thinking and judgment. Check out this and other fine posts at Vodzaklegal.

Rambling Writing

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

I’ve posted before about the importance of writing right. My students know that I frequently and repeatedly (perhaps incessantly) discuss the importance of being able to writing clearly and concisely, pointing out the word and page limits on filings in Federal Courts. The results (in terms of the papers and pleadings I receive) indicate that they do not take these admonitions seriously. So this from is for them (and any working paralegals of the same ilk):

7th Circuit Zaps Lawyer for Exceeding 14K Word Limit in Brief, Summarily OKs Lower Court Decision

n a blistering opinion (PDF) today, a federal appeals court not only stated or implied that a lawyer had been untruthful in his certification that a brief met the 14,000-word limit but criticized his “rambling” writing.

Then, saying that any further effort by appellant attorney John Caudill to file a brief that complied with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules would be pointless, a three-judge panel summarily affirmed the district court decision in the case.

While it did not dismiss the appeal as a sanction for Caudill’s certification that the brief was within the word limit, it has the power to do so, the court said in a six-page ruling authored by Judge Richard Posner:

“The flagrancy of the violation in this case might well justify the dismissal of the appeal: let this be a warning. But in addition it is plain from the briefs that the appeal has no merit. To allow time for the appellants to file a compliant brief and the appellees to file a revised brief in response, and to reschedule oral argument, would merely delay the inevitable.”




Writing Wrong

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

My last post related to using or disregarding grammar rules in order to communicate clearly. This evening I ran across these headlines for the same story. While headlines are not like real writing, a certain amount of clarity (which means thinking about what you are writing) is still required. Which of these three do you think most accurately represents the story:

Mother of 4-year-old Marchella Pierce, found dead and weighing just 15 pounds, arrested for assault. (Wow, the child’s mother weighed 15 pound, was found dead, and was stillcharged with assault!) New York Daily News.

Mother of underweight child found dead charged with assault (I’m actually surprised that the New York Post is a bit better than the New York Daily News.) New York Post.

Brooklyn Mother Charged In Connection With Underweight Daughter’s Death NY1

A sad story no matter how you look at it, but it does at least deserve intelligible writing.

When to boldly split an infinitive

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

It is difficult to exactly determine when to deftly split an infinitive and when not to do so. A post on reports on a lawyer and public relations consultant who advises,

“Blindly following grammar rules can be a mistake for legal writers..That means it is permissible to boldly split your infinitives, according to a Recorder article by AT&T lawyer John di Bene and public relations consultant Elizabeth Lampert.

“Lawyers will write the worst sentences in order to keep infinitives together, ruin the flow of their arguments and lose their readers in the process,” they write. “Remember, you are not writing for a grade, you’re writing to make a point. While it is important to know a rule, it is just as important to know when you should break it.”

They also advise against convoluted language, jargon and a patronizing tone.

This should not, however, be taken by any one that they can simply ignore the rules of grammar as a professional paralegal.

First, there is significant disagreement as to whether splitting infinitives is grammatically incorrect. So splitting an infinitive may not be a rule contravention at all. More important, though, is to take heed of the context: it is OK to bend the rules of grammar in order to avoid ruining the flow of an argument, or confusing or losing a reader. Most rules of grammar are intended to prevent these very same problem. Writing clearly, concisely, and persuasively is the goal. Most rules of grammar support that goal in most instances. They should be followed unless they clearly run counter to that goal.

Writing right remains an essential paralegal skill. Sloppy writing has its consequences some of which are illustrated in the “Consequences of Sloppiness” category. The most likely consequence is that your reader will not understand you. A brief is not likely to persuade a judge if the judge cannot understand what is being said. It certainly will not persuade a judge if the judge decides not to finish reading it.

I join with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kressel of Minnesota in strong agreement with the advice to avoid jargon.

Say what?

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

This has little to do directly with paralegal, other than as an object lesson on sentence structure and clear communications. Here’s the introductory sentence from an ABAJournal.compost:

Ohio tort lawyer Stan Chesley is facing an ethics investigation by the Kentucky Bar Association for his conduct in litigation involving fen-phen and priest abuse.

I admit to being behind in such matters, but I was totally unaware of a connection between fen-phen and priest abuse. In fact I wasn’t aware priest were being abused. You can check out what they really meant here.

Writing Right

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

The KNOW: The Magazine for Paralegals LinkedIn discussion forum includes a post by Kathy DiLorenzo,  Vice President, Business Development at, entitled “Why it’s Important to Write Right in the Legal Profession” with a link to an article “Why it’s Important to Write Right in the Legal Profession – And 5 Common Writing Pitfalls to Avoid” by Brenda Bernstein.

Several posts here discuss how important it is for a professional paralegal to write correctly – using proper grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and the like. There is an category cataloguing the “Consequences of Sloppiness.” However, I do not give instruction on how to write correctly in this blog. Instead I have counted on Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips Check out both the website and the podcasts. Both have been quite helpful to those of my students who spend even a small amount of time with either of them.

This is my first experience with Barbara’s advice, but in this article she does address some of the most common problems I experience when reading student work and legal documents produced be some very good law offices:

Past or Present – use of the wrong verb tense
Example or Complete List – use of “i.e.” and “e.g.”
Law or Liberty – confusing statute with statue
Proper Punctuation: Periods and Commas Inside Quotation Marks
Proper Punctuation: Apostrophes

Barbara presents this addition to the Consequences of Sloppiness:

In a famous case in England, a traffic ticket was thrown out because it was issued for illegal “stoping” instead of “stopping”; the alleged perpetrator had conducted no mining activities (“stoping” is a mining term) and so was found not guilty. I bet that police officer never issued another “stoping” ticket.

Barbara also offers to help:

There are multiple ways to make writing errors in legal documents, and I have only covered a few. My most important advice is to proofread and proofread again! Get a second pair of eyes to check your work. If you have grammar questions you want answered, I will answer them to the best of my ability in the comments section of this blog. I look forward to hearing from you…

I suggest we all take her up on her offer. I know I will.

Judge Hit by Emoticon!!!!

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

That isn’t even close to true and I’m surprised you bought into it. However, it will, I hope, draw some attention to this follow-up to my post on an attorney’s advice for using emoticons, or email in general, for communication. This time the advice is from a judge. As reported by ABAJournal

Judge Gerald Lebovits has some opinions about the propriety of exclamation points and emoticons in e-mails.

Basically you should “Lose the emoticons. They don’t convey meaning in a professional setting.It is always nice to see a judge, even if he is not on the Supreme Court, agree with me. He expresses those opinions in 60 foot notes in an article first published in the New York State Bar Association Journal! The footnotes also discuss the use of exclamation points!!

• Exclamation points have their place. They can show enthusiasm and human warmth. Writing “Congratulations!” is expressive, while “Congratulations” may sound apathetic or sarcastic. But don’t use exclamation points after expressing a negative emotion—it’s the same as throwing a tantrum.

You can find the full NYBA Journal article here.