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.

Back to the complaints department

Two weeks ago, we started to look at the $10-billion class-action complaint against GM filed on June 18. This week we’ll finish reviewing its lessons for students of good briefwriting.

The GM complaint was intended to be read. That might not sound like much of an assertion, but far too many complaints either aren’t intended to be read or their authors don’t know how to create a readable document. Flip through a run-of-the-mill complaint (or answer; they’re often just as bad) and you will find paragraph after paragraph of boring, highly-repetitive boilerplate intended only to cover every base so that nobody can say that the plaintiff waived anything. Any legal document worthy of being filed should aim higher: at persuasion.

The paragraph that follows is formed just from the first sentences of the first five paragraphs of the complaint. It doesn’t flow very well as a paragraph, because all but the first sentences in each paragraph that help to clarify and link are omitted, but notice how smoothly and rapidly the argument develops and how not one word is formulaic:

GM led the world and US consumers to believe that after bankruptcy it was a new company. GM was successful. GM’s image was an illusion. A vehicle made by a reputable manufacturer of safe and reliable vehicles is worth more than an otherwise similar vehicle made by a disreputable manufacturer that is known to devalue safety and to conceal serious defects from consumers and regulators. The systematic concealment of known defects was deliberate, as GM followed a consistent pattern of endless “investigation” and delay each time it became aware of a given defect.

Defining the class is always a challenge in a class-action complaint, as class definitions are vulnerable to attack in multiple ways. Clarity is important. Faced with having to define a class involving many different makes and models of vehicles (since GM owns Chevrolet, Buick, Saturn, etc.), the drafters of the GM complaint made the wise choice to include a table listing the cars covered:

GM complaint cars table

Including a table would not be a bold move in a scientific study, a quarterly report, a textbook, or a business plan, but it seems to be fairly revolutionary for lawyers, who will often struggle to express themselves only with text even when a picture, table, or some other graphic would be better.

California pleadin’

California lawyers, why do you deface your filings with two vertical lines in the left-hand column and one in the right? Sample:

California pleading format

As far as I can tell, this is not a California rule, but a custom that many people follow. California Rule of Court 2.108 requires line numbers in the left-hand margin, and adds that the line numbers must be “separated from the text of the paper by a vertical column of space at least 1/5 inch wide or a single or double vertical line.” The rule lets you choose a space instead of a line, and requires nothing in the right margin.

So why not just do what people usually do, and stick with the lines? This is a lot bigger than just a question for people who file briefs in California. You will be confronted many times during your career with the choice between doing a thing the way that “everyone else” does it and doing it a different, and possibly better, way. I promise you this: you won’t find any graphics designer who will tell you that text looks better, or easier to read, when you put prominent vertical lines right next to it.

If a rule makes you format your brief in a way that makes it uglier or harder to read, you have to follow the rule. If the bad formatting is based on a custom, not a rule, but your judge is so dedicated to the custom that you will lose credibility by not following it, follow the custom. If neither is the case, then I recommend that you do it the way that makes your brief as compelling and as beautiful as possible.

Think about that while you listen to this:

Complaints department

As a lawyer who defends serial litigation involving hundreds of thousands of individual lawsuits, I’ve seen a lot of complaints. They are mostly low-grade work, obviously created merely to cover the bases of the relevant mandatory legal pleading requirements, and often just as obviously cut-and-pasted from prior complaints. Complaints deserve more attention. Your judge will probably take a look at it at some point, and every filing is a chance to persuade. Your opponent, and perhaps more importantly your opponent’s client, will probably read it, and showing strength to them may improve your chances of settlement. And in some cases, the complaint will get much wider reading than that. Today we look at an example: the $10-billion class-action complaint filed last week against General Motors, claiming that multiple GM recalls have lowered the value of all GM cars.

Any lengthy legal document should have a table of contents to help readers find different parts of the document and—more importantly—to lay out the whole argument in a compelling way up front. The GM complaint does a pretty good job of this. For example, this excerpt from the facts section piles on defect after defect, persuading by repetition.

GM complaint TOC

The effect is marred by bad editing. Lists of similar elements must be parallel. If it’s “the” xyz defect in (1) and (2), it needs to be “the” defect again in (3). And you can’t change your capitalization scheme from sentence case to title case partway through the list, as at (8) here. Item (10), to maintain parallelism, should read “The 26 other defects revealed by GM in recalls during the first 5½ months of 2014.” Finally, while we’re paying attention to formatting, the hanging single word “Quality” in (A) looks bad. “High Quality” should be kept together.

I’ve saved the best for last. The complaint is full of graphic images, making its points powerfully with GM’s own public marketing. Here are some examples. Take a look, and reflect on how much more powerfully the point is made by the image than by the bare text of the corresponding paragraph of the complaint.


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.

DC Circuit on 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.

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