Numbered paragraphs

It’s standard practice in many jurisdictions to draft motions in a numbered-paragraph format. There may be a bit of preliminary matter of the “comes now the plaintiff” variety, but when that is done the writer will type “1.” and hit the tab key and start right into the first part of the argument.

I don’t like the practice, for three major reasons.

First, using this format homogenizes your brief. You normally don’t use headers in a numbered-paragraph brief (except maybe “Argument” and “Conclusion”), and so lose that important technique for signposting where your argument is going.

Without any headers, you also lose additional visual information about the argument. Take a look at the pages below, showing one section of a brief. You can’t understand a word of it. But can you tell me where you would be likely to find the subject matter of the section? Where the conclusion? Where the development of the argument linking the two? That’s easy… in a normally-formatted brief like the one below. But with numbered paragraphs, you can’t tell any of those things at a glance.

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The second major problem with numbered paragraphs is that they undermine any sense of hierarchy in your arguments. Each distinct point gets its own numbered paragraph, and each therefore looks equally important, from a formality to inform the court that it has jurisdiction to the paragraph that is the crux of your argument. This is not just a visual matter. The numbered-paragraph organization forces the reader to come to each new paragraph with their mind open to the possibility that it will elaborate on the one before, or make an important side comment, or maybe start an entirely new subject.

The third problem probably derives from the first two. Since the numbered-paragraph format removes all of the usual cues for argument structure, lawyers using it often leap wildly from minor point to major and back, from subject to subject, without any attempt to foreshadow what is to come, refer to what has gone before, or otherwise transition gracefully. This turns what should be a smooth ride for the reader into a cheap carnival rollercoaster of unexpected jerks and bumps. That’s not what you want.

If you don’t have to use a numbered-paragraph format, don’t. When you do have to (such as for statements of fact in many jurisdictions), treat the numbers as just a little detail that you are required to add in front of each of your paragraphs. Write as if they aren’t there, with headers, subheaders, transitional sentences, and all of your normal tools of organization. It’s a little bit harder to write that way (which is one reason some lawyers prefer unadorned numbered paragraphs), but the extra elements help the judge to understand you, and help you to persuade the judge.

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