Gunston Specialty Holding Corp. LLC

Let’s say that you represent Gunston Specialty Holdings Corp. LLC (often abbreviated in company emails and internal documents as GSHCLLC). How should you refer to them in a brief?

Long-time readers of this blog are now shouting in unison “Gunston!” Shorter is better for a host of reasons, including that “Gunston” sounds a bit like a person—or at least something that might have some human attributes—while “Gunston Specialty Holdings Corp. LLC” does not, and GSHCLLC sounds like something you have to type in to get a website to accept that you aren’t a robot.

There’s another excellent reason for short names, from well-validated psychological research. When you write your brief about Gunston, you are introducing the judge to an unfamiliar name and then asking her to learn things about it and make decisions about it. This is a difficult mental task. Your judge stores information like “the name of the entity we’re talking about” in short-term memory. Short-term memory can’t hold much. When you stress it with a long string of words, or something that makes no lexical sense like an acronym, it decreases the judge’s ability to pay attention to the rest of your message and makes it harder to comprehend what you are saying.

When something is hard to comprehend and takes too much work to process, people tend to reject it. If your argument is confusing because of aesthetic details like your insistence on using awkward titles for the entities involved, you have made it less persuasive.

The effect of things like this is not 100%, of course; they function at the margin. A bad argument with nice short names is still unlikely to persuade; an excellent one about SXRCJSDS will probably still work. But it’s your job to improve the odds of persuasion, particularly in the close cases that are the most common kind to be presented for adjudication.

The affect heuristic

There is a well-documented psychological bias called the affect heuristic. When we observe one virtue in someone, we tend to ascribe other virtues to them as well. One notorious example is that if someone is attractive, we tend to think that they are also more competent, wise, clever, and so on. Repeated studies have confirmed the existence of this bias, and also that people tend to agree that other people are biased in this way, but that they themselves are not (but the studies show that they are, despite their protestations, and even after having been made aware of the bias).

The affect heuristic is one reason why presentation matters. Logically, of course, a brief can be attractive, well-formatted, and free of typos, but also confusing, stupid, and wrong. But if your brief has the first three attributes, that will make it at least somewhat more likely that the judge won’t think it has the last three.

We all learned in third grade that a clear plastic binder won’t salvage a lousy book report, and neither will careful formatting save a brief that is bad on the merits. But once you’ve gotten the content right, pay attention to the presentation. It matters.

Lawyer’s jokes

When I was a law clerk I drew up the initial draft of an opinion, including a short comic poem at the start reciting the facts. The judge—a very wise man who had been solving very serious sociolegal disputes before I was born—told me that it was funny but that an opinion wasn’t the place for it. The parties, he said, took their dispute seriously and may be insulted by levity. So he took it out.

You may be tempted to say something funny in a brief: a terrific play on words, a joke, a sarcastic comment. Don’t. The best that you can hope for is: (1) the judge and clerk don’t think that your levity is insulting to the gravity of the dispute; (2) they agree with you that it’s funny; (3) they appreciate your taking up their time with the joke; and (4) they respect and are not threatened by your wit. If you don’t get all four, you lose credibility. Care to calculate your chances?

Here, swallow this BRIQ

A BRIQ is a Big, Really Impenetrable Quote, and you shouldn’t try to make judges swallow them, because they won’t. BRIQs are lazy, because they say to the judge “here’s a bunch of stuff for you to read and figure out.” BRIQs are visually daunting, especially in block-quote format. Imagine being a judge who was reading Joe Jamail’s brief in Minton v. Gunn and turning to page 15 to see this:

BRIQs

The entire argument on the page is: “Another judge said the same thing we’re arguing: BRIQ … BRIQ. And then he said BRIQ.” That’s just lazy.

If you have quotes that are so on point that they win the case for you, the worst thing that you can do (other than not mention them at all) is serve them up without comment in BRIQ format. There’s a good chance the judge will skip over anything as unappetizing as a BRIQ, and a better chance that he won’t fully understand its significance if he does read it. If the quotes are that good, you should be explaining them, not just lining them up like masonry samples. And, by the way, you should be doing it on page one, not page fifteen.

Line control

high quality

I recently pointed out a formatting problem where “Quality” in “High Quality” was  “hanging” on its own line, and recommended moving “High” down to accompany it. I’ve had multiple requests to explain how to do this without creating a new paragraph (as would happen if you hit “enter” right before “High” to move it to the next line).  In MS Word, there are two simple ways to do this.

You could use Shift-Space to put a non-breaking space between “High” and “Quality.” Non-breaking spaces are treated like a letter, so “High Quality” with such a space between the words will be moved around as a single unit. This is also an excellent thing to do between any two words that you don’t want to be separated during document formatting; for example, I always use them after abbreviated titles like “Mrs.” or “Dr.”

Another way to insert a line break without starting a new paragraph is to type Shift-Enter where you want the break to appear (after “and” in this example). This moves all following text to the next line while keeping it part of the same paragraph.

Commands like this should be in your repertoire, or at least your secretary’s. They may seem like a hassle to learn, but you will use them pretty much every time you write or edit a brief, and they will save you time and trouble in the long run.

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