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March 2017

April 2017

Negativity as a briefwriting strategy

Are negative themes in briefwriting more persuasive than positive themes? Often, they are. That’s the indication from a study described in a recent article by Prof. Kenneth Chestek. It’s available for free download on SSRN. Here’s the abstract:

Cognitive psychologists have identified a phenomenon they call the “negativity bias,” in which humans seem to remember and be affected by negative information more strongly than by positive information. What are the implications of this bias for legal writers? Should they focus on negative themes (describing the opposing side as bad) instead of positive ones (describing their clients as good and worthy)? More specifically, to trial judges fall prey to the negativity bias?

This article describes an empirical test in which 163 judges were asked to read different versions of a Preliminary Statement to a trial brief (some using positive themes, others using negative ones) to measure whether (and by how much) the judge’s perceptions of the parties were affected. The study concludes that, in many (but not all) cases, negative themes did seem to have more impact on the judicial reader.

Chestek, Kenneth D., Fear and Loathing in Persuasive Writing: An Empirical Study of the Effects of the Negativity Bias (April 17, 2017). Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD, Vol. 14, 2017. Available at SSRN:

When a judgment isn’t final

Last month, the First Circuit issued a pair of unpublished decisions, each of which dismissed an appeal for lack of a final, appealable judgment. The problem with both judgments: the amount awarded could not be determined from the judgment itself. As explained by the court, the amount awarded must be stated in or determinable from the judgment itself, so that a third person can determine from the judgment itself the amount owed without reference to other documents. In the First Circuit’s view, the judgments in these two cases came up short.

In Duet v. Landry, 2016-0575 (La. App. 1 Cir. 3/6/17), the judgment awarded “$4,733, along with any penalties and interest, for the amount of income tax liability Plaintiffs incurred.” The judgment was deemed deficient because

[t]he interest due on the delinquent taxes and penalties are not certain and determinable from the judgment. The judgment does not state the precise rate of interst on the taxes or the period of time for which the interest on the taxes is payable. The judgment does not give any information regarding the amount of the penalties. therefore, the portion of the judgment concerning interest and penalties on the delinquent taxes is not definite and certain, and the judgment is not a final judgment.

In Rosewood Enterprises, Inc. v. Rosewood Development, LLC, 2016-0352 (La. App. 1 Cir. 3/6/17), the judgment awarded $2,149,080, plus accrued interest of 7.5% per annum until paid, plus late charges in the amount of 5% of the overdue payments, plus reasonable attorney fees and costs and expenses of collection ....” The award of 5% late charges was insufficient because it failed to “specify either a total amount of late charges owed, or set forth information allowing for the calculation of late charges without necessitating reference to the note or other extrinsic sources.” Also the judgment failed to specify the amount of attorney’s fees and collection costs awarded.

The lessons we can learn from these decisions: (1) If you can calculate the amount awarded, do so and put the amount in the judgment. (2) If some part of the award can’t be calculated—or if there is any other doubt about finality—ask the trial court to designate the judgment as final under La. Code Civ. P. art. 1915(B)