A little blog maintenance
New year, new rules.

A lesson in how not to write a brief

Many of us have seen briefs that seemed to be nothing but a collection of quotations strung together. Recently, an extreme example made its way to the U.S. Seventh Circuit in an immigration appeal. The 49-page brief contained only 5 original sentences. For the party whose counsel filed the brief, the outcome was a loss. A loss, suggested Judge Posner, that might have been avoided if the briefwriter had done some actual writing:

The Board’s opinion, and to a lesser extent that of the immigration judge, are flawed. But the inadequacy of the brief that her lawyer has filed in this court precludes our vacating the denial of asylum. The brief consists almost entirely of verbatim quotations either from the administrative record or from previous decisions of this court. The statement of facts consists almost entirely of quotations from the record, and the summary of argument consists entirely (not “almost entirely”) of an extended quotation from one of our previous decisions. The argument section of the brief consists of nothing but quotations from the record and from previous decisions, until the last few pages, which deal with the plaintiff’s alternative (and clearly meritless) claim for relief—withholding of removal. Most of the material in that section as well is quoted rather than original material, but there is a bit of interstitial material that appears to be original—though none elsewhere in the brief, excluding the table of contents and other purely formal matter. All in all, in a 49-page brief, if one excludes purely formal matter, there are only five original sentences. A brief so composed is not helpful to either the reviewing court or the client.

An inadequate brief often signals a desperately weak case. This is not a desperately weak case, but we cannot write a party’s brief, pronounce ourselves convinced by it, and so rule in the party’s favor. That’s not how an adversarial system of adjudication works.... We’re neither authorized nor equipped to write a lawyer’s brief for him.

The inadequacy of the brief in this case is especially unfortunate because the Board’s opinion and that of the immigration judge contain errors that have led to reversals of the Board in previous cases ....

Chen v. Holder, No. 13-1758 (7th Cir. Dec. 11, 2013). (Hat tip to Bob Markle for sending this along.)

In The Winning Brief, Bryan Garner teaches briefwriters to, well, write. “That means you’re doing more than merely stockpiling what others have said—even if those others happen to be judges.” The reason is simple. If your writing is just an assembly of quotations, it “won’t have a clear analytical line. How could it, if you’re just linking (or not even linking) quotation after quotation?”

There’s another reason why mere assemblies of quotations fail to persuade: that sort of writing cannot convey ethos, the character of the speaker or writer. To express your self to a reader, your writing must be your own. It must literally be self-expression. That’s how one human being persuades another. You don’t reach another person by spewing other people’s words. You reach another person by talking or writing in your own natural voice.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


FWIW, the offending attorney sent an email to Eugene Volokh with his point of view.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)