Category Archives: Analysis

Block that block quotation

Considerations for using block quotations.

A survey of the advice on block quotations shows that it’s almost all negative: Don’t do it unless you must, say judges, legal-writing teachers, and experienced lawyers. So we should block block quotations? Why? Two main reasons.

Readers skip them. These readers include judges and their clerks. Admit it—you often skip block quotations when you read, too, so why would your readers be any different? If you put something important in a block quotation, you risk that it won’t be read.

They smack of laziness. Instead of paraphrasing, instead of summarizing, you used a block quotation—you copied and pasted. That’s the impression block quotations give, especially if you overuse them, and that perceived laziness turns readers off.

Despite these concerns, many well-written memos and briefs contain at least one block quotation and sometimes more. So the point is not to ban block quotations but to use them sparingly and effectively. Here are some recommendations.

First, anything you block-quote must be vital. If statutory language is at issue or is crucial to your analysis, a block quotation is appropriate. And sometimes, block-quoting key statutory text can allow readers to get re-anchored in the relevant language by flipping or scrolling back to it without having to consult an appendix.

Likewise, if a binding case contains language of more than 50 words that’s directly relevant to your argument or powerfully persuasive for your position, a block quotation is appropriate. But if you harbor doubts about how vital the quotation is, you probably shouldn’t use a block quotation.

Even after you decide you need that quotation, try to shorten it to fewer than 50 words—just so you can avoid a block quotation. Yes, an embedded quotation of 49 words is still off-putting, but it’s more likely to be read because it isn’t a block.

Now, if the text is 50 words or longer and you’re certain you need it, edit it again so that when block-quoted, it’s not too long. No page-length block quotations, please. One thing more annoying than a block quotation is a long block quotation.

As you edit, show your alterations and omissions per Bluebook rules, but remember: heavy alteration or omission suggests that the quotation might be taken out of context, so go easy. One lawyer recommends that if you’ve heavily edited the block quotation, drop a footnote that contains the full text so readers can check your work.1

As a last step, write an inviting, persuasive lead-in to the block. The lead-in needs to show why the quotation is important or assert something the quotation will prove. In fact, it’s acceptable to paraphrase the quotation’s key point and use that paraphrase as a lead-in. Think of it like this: The lead-in should make the reader think, “Hmm. Is that so? Well maybe I should read this block quotation to be sure.” (Introducing quotations was addressed in this blog here.) One colleague suggested that the text after the block quotation might assert the key point, too. Readers who skip the block will still get the point—twice.

Are you going to strictly follow The Bluebook’s rule on length? In rule 5.2, The Bluebook says you must block only quotations of 50 words or more. But I say you can treat that rule as a recommendation, not binding authority. If you have a shorter quotation you’d like to highlight, you may set it off as a block if you wish.

Ultimately, you’re in charge of your block quotations, so use them sparingly but effectively.

Check out Wayne Schiess’s new book: Legal Writing Nerd: Be One.

1. Maureen Johnson, To Quote or Not to Quote: Making the Case for Teaching Law Students the Art of Effective Quotation in Legal Memoranda, 56 S. Tex. L. Rev. 283, 306 (2014).

Somewhat Qualified, Part 2

Qualifying legal conclusions

Legal matters are often qualified: some conclusions might merit absolutely and certainly, while others deserve possibly and likely. So legal writers justifiably use qualifiers. In my last post, I discussed qualifying factual statements; here I discuss qualifying legal conclusions.

Relying on a survey of legal-writing textbooks, I can report that these are the most commonly recommended qualifiers for legal conclusions:

  • likely
  • probably
  • plausibly
  • possibly
  • should

The most frequently recommended are likely and its forms, with probably coming in second.

Many of the textbooks surveyed discuss the traditional, predictive memorandum, in which a lawyer predicts an outcome that may be less than certain. But the same qualifiers are useful in other contexts, too—whenever a lawyer gives advice or offers a recommendation.

In fact, likely and its forms are part of a useful continuum from positive to negative certainty. At one end is a direct yes or will—a legal result will happen; the outcome is certain. At the other is no or will not. In between are likely and unlikely, which might be further qualified: highly likely, highly unlikely, and so on.

Now the advice.

1. Don’t qualify.

As with much writing advice for adverbs, adjectives, intensifiers, and qualifiers, the best advice is to avoid them when you can. Bryan Garner recommends that legal writers “toss out timid phrases.”[1] What’s more, he calls these qualifiers Fudge Words and offers as an undesirable example, “It would seem to appear that….”[2] That’s a trifecta: three Fudge Words in one clause: would, seem, and appear.

The urge to qualify is natural, but legal writers must be careful of “overhedging.” Granted that legal outcomes are rarely certain, we sometimes overcorrect and qualify too much. It’s a natural tendency, and novices might be particularly vulnerable.

In fact, a colleague in another state forbids his first-year law students to qualify conclusions at all. He believes it forces them to research carefully, analyze precisely, and write clearly.[3] But even if you don’t enforce a prohibition, it’s a good default: don’t qualify. For example (qualifiers are in boldface):

  • Before: A possible lawsuit by Heather Green against her employer, Manzares & Cline LLP, could likely survive a motion to dismiss.
  • After: A lawsuit by Heather Green against her employer, Manzares & Cline LLP, will survive a motion to dismiss.

2. Qualify and explain.

When you decide that you must qualify your conclusion, that you must hedge, do your best to explain why—immediately and concretely. Explaining has two benefits.

You benefit. Forcing yourself to articulate why you’ve qualified your conclusion can lead to insights about the level of qualification. Maybe you over- or under-qualified your conclusion, which you can see now that you’ve had to explain it. Revise accordingly.

Readers benefit. Explaining why you qualified a conclusion serves clients and decision-makers. They already know that likely means better than 50-50 but not a sure thing. By explaining, you make your conclusion more concrete and empower them to ask additional questions or pursue other options.

Here’s an example that uses the qualifier likely and then gives a concrete explanation of why the writer qualified the prediction:

  • A lawsuit by Heather Green against her employer, Manzares & Cline LLP, will likely survive a motion to dismiss. Nonlawyer employees may sue for retaliation because it encourages reporting of illegal activities. But in-house counsel may not sue because lawyers have an independent ethical obligation to report illegal activity. Green, an associate, did not represent her employer as an attorney, as in-house counsel do. She is not under the same ethical obligation to report illegal activity and deserves the incentives provided by a retaliation suit.

So set your default at no qualifications, but when you must qualify, be clear about why.

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[1] Bryan A. Garner, The Elements of Legal Style 35 (2d ed. 2002).

[2] Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 381 (3d ed. 2011).

[3] Andrew J. Turner, Helping Students Grow Professionally and Overcome Fear: The Benefits of Teaching Unqualified Brief Answers, 25 Perspectives: Teaching Leg. Res. & Writing 3, 4-5 (2016).

Introducing quotations

Inviting readers to read, not skip, your quotations

Legal writers often need to use quotations in persuasive documents. Quoting a reliable source adds credibility to your assertions and can relieve the reader of independently checking a source. In this column I’ll discuss a technique for formally introducing quotations that can enhance persuasive force and invite readers to read the quotation—not skip it.

But first, two caveats: (1) Legal writing requires scrupulous honesty and care in quoting; misquoting a source, intentionally or accidentally, harms your credibility. (2) Legal writers should avoid over-quoting; use quotations for crucial legal language or to clinch a key point. Otherwise, paraphrase.

And this post isn’t about incorporating a quotation into your own textual sentence, like these examples:

  • The relevant statute states, “[a]ny taxpayer who paid the sales tax has standing to sue for a refund.” [citation]
  • The relevant statute provides that “[a]ny taxpayer who paid the sales tax has standing to sue for a refund.” [citation]

Instead, I’ll address a formal lead-in to a quotation.

A common and traditional way to introduce a quotation is to use a lead-in statement and a colon, like these:

  • The court stated as follows:
  • The statute provides the following:
  • The hearing officer made the following ruling:

These forms are adequate but average. In their place, I recommend introducing the quotation with what we might call an informative or persuasive lead-in by asserting a point the quotation will prove. So don’t write this:

  • The relevant statute provides authorization as follows: “Any taxpayer who paid the sales tax has standing to sue for a refund.” [citation]

Instead, introduce the quotation by asserting a point the quotation will clinch, like this:

  • The Tax Code affirms Granger’s right to sue for a refund: “Any taxpayer who paid the sales tax has standing to sue for a refund.” [citation]

The technique works for block quotations, too. We all know that readers often skip block quotations. According to Mark Hermann, author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, “you must trick the judge into learning the content of the block quotation.”[1] He recommends summarizing the quotation’s substance in the lead-in sentence. And Bryan Garner, in The Winning Brief, offers similar advice: “For every block quotation, supply an informative, eye-catching lead-in.”[2]

So instead of this average lead-in:

  • The State intervened in operating Lincoln County Schools, and the Superintendent thus acted under authority of the Education Code, which states as follows:

The state board shall intervene in the operation of a school district to cause improvements to be made that will provide assurances of a thorough and efficient system of schools. Such intervention includes the authority of the state superintendent to fill positions of administrators and principals. [citation]

Try this:

  • Once the State intervened in operating Lincoln County Schools, the Education Code granted the Superintendent the right to make personnel decisions for the vacant principal positions:

The state board shall intervene in the operation of a school district to cause improvements to be made that will provide assurances of a thorough and efficient system of schools. Such intervention includes the authority of the state superintendent to fill positions of administrators and principals. [citation]

The lead-in asserts a point and, to some degree, summarizes the quotation to follow. With this technique, according to Herrmann and Garner, you’ll get two payoffs. First, readers might read the block: the assertive tone of the lead-in invites them to read the quotation to see if you’re right. Second, even if readers skip the block, they still get the key content.

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[1] Mark Herrmann, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law 8 (2006).

[2] Bryan A. Garner, The Winning Brief 501 (3d ed. 2014).

Justice Gorsuch’s first opinion shows his style

If you search “Neil Gorsuch writing,” you’ll find a number of sources describing new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch as a strong writer, a writer with flair, a writer with style. Justice Gorsuch has now written his first opinion for the Supreme Court, in this case: Henson v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc.  After reading it carefully and using some MS Word tools to assess it, I offer a few observations about Justice Gorsuch’s writing style.

Stripped of extraneous text and citations, the opinion has about 3000 words and 120 sentences, for an average of 25 words per sentence. That’s a good and readable average for legal writing, as I’ve written here before. The Flesch Reading Ease score is 44. That’s excellent because Supreme Court opinions average around 31.1 (The higher the number, the more readable the text.) And the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is 13, meaning a first-year college student should be able to understand the text. That’s pretty good too because Supreme Court opinions average about 14.5.2 Granted, the subject matter of the opinion—who’s a debt collector under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act—wasn’t complex, and these statistical measures aren’t terribly meaningful, but they at least suggest that Justice Gorsuch tries to write readably.

Two other choices also convey the impression of a thoughtful writer who tries to write readably: Of his 120 sentences, he began 20 with a coordinating conjunction: and, or, for, but, yet, so. That’s a technique of an informal, readable style. So is using contractions, and Gorsuch used 17.

Justice Gorsuch has a few other writing preferences I find interesting.

He rarely uses traditional transition words (conjunctive adverbs) like however, moreover, furthermore, therefore, nevertheless, additionally, and so on. In fact, other than two uses of however, there are none.

Instead, he uses coordinating conjunctions, as mentioned, but he also uses phrases rather than single words, like these, all of which appear at the beginning of sentences:

  • Before attending to that job, though,
  • To the contrary,
  • By this point
  • Given that,
  • After all,
  • After all and again,
  • In the end,

But just as many of his transitions and cues appear mid-sentence, rather than at the beginning:

  • These results follow, the parties tell us, because . . .
  • Petitioners did not, however, raise . . .
  • In another subsection, too, Congress . . .
  • You might, for example, take . . .
  • This exclusion, petitioners now suggest, implies . . .
  • Legislation is, after all, the . . .

More thoughts to come . . .

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1. Lance N. Long, William F. Christensen, When Justices (Subconsciously) Attack: The Theory of Argumentative Threat and the Supreme Court, 91 Or. L. Rev. 933, 950 (2013)

2. See id. at 949.

How to write an e-mail memo

By tradition, when lawyers write a legal analysis for internal use or as a decision-making tool, they write a memo. Today, many memos are e-mail messages. When you ask for an e-mail memo or when you write one, what guidelines do you follow? I propose some here, but it’s important to know your audience. Reject any of these guidelines if your boss prefers something else.

Keep the length down—if you can.
No one likes to read long e-mail messages. Try following the “no scrolling” or “one screen” rule: Readers get everything they need without scrolling past the opening screen. Sometimes a longer message is necessary, but it can still be efficient and effective if you front-load key information. More about front-loading below. Of course, you could write a short message and attach the longer memo, but before you do, check with the assigning lawyer. Some lawyers dislike reading attachments, and attachments don’t always display well on tablets or phones.

Remember: a more concise piece of writing is often harder to produce than a long one. Give yourself time to condense and tighten.

Use the subject line to give key information.
For a short, single-issue e-mail memo, I recommend writing a condensed, specific subject line that states the answer. You save the reader time and effort, and besides, legal readers appreciate knowing the answer before they get into the analysis. This suggestion just takes the idea a little further.

It’s not always possible or practical to put the answer in the subject line. Maybe it would be too easy for others to see; maybe your boss doesn’t like it; maybe you have three answers to report. If your work environment or your boss dictates that you don’t put the answer in the subject line, then just write something specific—think summary, not merely topic.

Restate the question asked.
The first line of the body text should restate the question. In fact, I like the opening phrase “You asked . . .” Provide enough detail—facts and law—to accurately frame the question, and avoid abstraction. If there are multiple questions, number them.

An e-mail memo that assumes the reader knows what was asked and that skips right to the answer has two drawbacks: it’s frustrating for secondary readers, who’ll have to scroll through the thread to find what was asked, and it’s frustrating for the assigning lawyer who’s reading the e-mail days or weeks later.

Give the answer with reasons in one paragraph.
Write a thorough answer with reasons, thus ensuring that the body text is complete, easily understood if isolated from the other parts of the message, and readily copied and pasted into other documents. The answer with reasons also serves as critical front-loading in a longer message. You can write a single, short paragraph—three or four lines of text, or you can write the answer and give the reasons in bullet points. If there were numbered questions, use parallel numbering for the answers.

State the governing law but skip the case explanations.
A traditional memo states the legal rule that governs the question, and an e-mail memo should too. Be accurate and concise: name important statutes (“Under Insurance Code § 22.001 . . .”), refer to important cases by shorthand (“According to Lone Pine Mfg. . . .”), and mention the jurisdiction (“In Texas . . .”). But don’t clutter the text with formal, full-form citations.

A traditional memo also explains the cases that have construed and applied the law—illustrations that give readers a concrete understanding of the law. But there’s usually no space for that in an e-mail memo, so leave it out.

(Yet writing explanations is excellent practice for new lawyers and ensures a better understanding of the law. If you’re a new lawyer, go ahead and write careful, clear, concise explanations. Just don’t put them in the e-mail memo. Write them and save them somewhere. They’ll often come in handy later.)

Analyze as needed.
Support your answer by explaining why the law leads to a particular result in your case. Expand on the reasons you gave, but be succinct and concise. Get quickly to the core concepts and eliminate background and build-up. Keep the analysis to just a few paragraphs if you can.

Other guidelines
If the body text is long, divide it and insert headings to enable skimming (Issue and Answer, Summary of Law, Impact on Client). Consider including, at the end, full citations for the relevant authorities, and even summaries, if your boss wants them. And treat e-mail message that provide legal analysis as formal writing; avoid a casual or informal style.

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Ultimately, treat e-mail memos as serious pieces of legal analysis that deserve thorough research, clear writing, and careful editing. Remember that your e-mail can and will be forwarded to clients, to other lawyers, and to the hiring committee.

 

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