Word limits: better than page limits?

Last week, federal district judge Steven Merryday admonished defense counsel for manipulating the standard letter spacing in their document so they could squeeze in more words but stay within the page limit. Highland Holdings, Inc. v. Mid-Continent Cas. Co., No. 8:14-cv-1334-t-23TBM (M.D. Fla. June 23, 2016). An excerpt is pasted below, along with a link to the full document.

I think the court should switch to a word limit. It might not solve all problems, but it removes the incentive for authors to use these tricks:

  • manipulate line-spacing (use 1.9 line-spacing instead of true double-spacing, for example)
  • manipulate font size (use 11.5-point font instead of 12, for example)
  • manipulate margins (use 0.9-inch margins instead of 1-inch margins, for example)
  • pick smaller fonts (use Garamond instead of Times New Roman, for example)

and a trick I’d never seen until now

  • manipulate the letter spacing

I switched to a word count on student papers many years ago and am glad I did.

Excerpt:

Mid-Continent’s response (Doc. 50) to Highland Holdings’ motion for summary judgment is disguised as a paper that conforms both to Local Rule 1.05(a), which requires each “paper[] tendered by counsel for filing [to] be typewritten, double-spaced, [and] in at least twelve-point type,” and to Local Rule 3.01(b), which limits the length of a response to “not more than twenty (20) pages.” Although neither rule explicitly proscribes manipulative letterspacing,[1] the Local Rules assume that counsel engages in no manipulation to evade the effect of the rules and assume counsel’s use of the standard space between consecutive letters. Quite transparently, Mid-Continent’s response manipulates the space between consecutive characters in the response and adds approximately two words to each line. Tactics such as Mid-Continent’s letterspacing contribute to a burgeoning set of Local Rules, a phenomenon caused not by persnickety judges but by parties’ relentless efforts to gain an advantage by subverting a set of rules designed to ensure parity. Counsel is admonished; an attempt to subvert the Local Rules exposes the offending counsel to sanction.

[1] “Letterspacing (also known as character spacing or tracking) is the adjustment of the horizontal white space between the letters in a block of text.” Matthew Butterick, Typography for Lawyers 92 (2d ed. 2015).

Full text of the order is here.

How do lawyers do at giving assignments?

I sent 22 lawyers this one-question survey, asking them to check one.

__ Most senior attorneys are good at giving research-and-writing assignments and instructions.
__ Most senior attorneys are average at giving research-and-writing assignments and instructions.
__ Most senior attorneys are poor at giving research-and-writing assignments and instructions.

I was expecting a lot of “poor” responses, but I suppose I should have been able to predict the results, given that I’m a teacher who grades a course on a curve:

  • Good = 7
  • Average = 9
  • Poor = 6

That’s a pretty decent bell curve. Here are two interesting comments from my respondents:

“I think senior attorneys struggle to understand and acknowledge all the information and background they retain and know but don’t always explain to a newer attorney who might need that information and background to effectively perform the  assignment.”

Well said. This is the curse of knowledge, the frustratingly common phenomenon of being unable to recognize that others don’t know what you know.

“It depends on the cut-off between senior attorney and junior attorney. I would say folks in their first 3-5 years are good, folks who’ve practiced for 10 or more are confusing or poor, and folks in between are average.”

Makes sense, right? The farther you get from the novice level, the harder it is to communicate at the novice level.

Texas Law graduate Lou Sirico wins legal-writing award

I’m pleased to announce that Professor Louis Sirico of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law is the 2016 winner of the Burton Award for outstanding contributions to legal-writing education.

Professor Sirico is a long-time and staunch supporter of legal-writing education and of legal-writing teachers and is admired for his work in the field.

He is also, by the way, a graduate of The University of Texas School of Law. Well done, Lou!