June 17, 2014The Main Message
If you want to be a successful lawyer, you should write clean briefs that make it as easy as possible for the judge to understand your position and why you should win. This advice is not really controversial at all: judges say this to us all the time. Perhaps the latest example was recently featured on Above The Law as their Benchslap Of The Day. Judge Silberman of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit (nine blocks from our office) wrote a four-paragraph concurrence with a regulatory-law decision by the court. One paragraph was devoted to agreeing with the majority and three to blasting the petitioner’s brief for its heavy use of acronyms.
The brief in question was, indeed, quite full of acronyms. I can’t say that it was more so than most others in the field, but it certainly violated some basic principles of abbreviations in briefwriting. Several terms were given acronyms in the page-and-a-half-long glossary even though they appeared in the brief again only one or two times. Always just spell terms like that out. Others were given unwieldy acronyms when a word would be far friendlier to human cognition. For example, the US Army Corps of Engineers was defined in the glossary as USACE, then, dozens of pages later, referred to five times in two pages. It would have been more intelligible to wait until the Corps of Engineers emerged in the narrative (on page 48), used their full name once, and then called them the Corps, the Army Corps, the Corps of Engineers, or some other term employing English words.
Acronyms are a familiar bugaboo of regulatory law, but the larger fundamental problem exists for everyone. You know all about your case and your area of the law. It’s what you do. But your judge must decide whatever controversies are put into play by all the parties before the court, and must be far more of a generalist. Don’t make anybody look up PADCNR; don’t make anyone guess about the holding of a case that is well-known by others in your subspecialty but not by anyone else; don’t make anyone flip back five pages to find the important part of an earlier argument that you incorporated by reference. Make it simple, make it clear.