Legal News and Appellate Tips

Each week, TVA appellate attorney Tim Kowal reviews several recent decisions out of the appellate courts in California, and elsewhere, and reports about the ones that might help you get an edge in your cases and appeals.

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Tag: Legal Writing

M.C. Sungaila Reports Back After Over 100 Interviews of Women Judges & Attorneys at the Portia Project

M.C. Sungaila has advocated at some of the highest levels of appellate law, and last year took her experience and her heart for mentoring and public interest work to the Portia Project podcast, where she distills the wisdom and experience of women judges, justices, and top attorneys in the nation.

M.C. sits down with Tim Kowal and Jeff Lewis on the California Appellate Law Podcast to discuss some of the insights and recurring themes and advice she’s gleaned from having interviewed now over 100 of the most successful women in the legal profession today:

• The “watershed moment” in the 1980s when Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman on the Supreme Court, opening the floodgates for women in law.

• The varied paths to the bench, taken by lawyers who never thought it possible.

• A law degree doesn’t just mean one thing, and success sometimes mean failing at your first try, second try, etc., until you find the right fit.

• The disconnect between lawyers and judges: Advocates are looking for an outcome, but appellate judges are looking for an opinion.

• Appellate judges look at oral argument as another part of their process in preparing to make their decision. Don’t look at oral argument as just an isolated 30-60 minutes—that’s not how the panel sees it.

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Blue Book or Yellow Book for Legal Citation Format?

Legal writing and editing nerds, you may have opinions on this. Benjamin Shatz sounds off on whether the Blue Book or the Yellow Book is the superior form of legal citation. Ben’s […]

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A Mind Is Another Country

I sometimes ask our podcast guests their favorite part of the appellate process…other than writing the briefs. Because we already know that every appellate attorney’s favorite thing is writing. So here I try my own explanation why writing is such a fun adventure: because it is a journey to another country. Reaching another person’s mind is a most difficult thing. Done poorly, the traveler is left marooned and alone. Done well, the traveler is met by new friendly company.

William Hazlitt’s observation is what I have in mind when it comes to translating complex ideas to another soul. He said that “the more you really enter into a subject, the farther you will be from the comprehension of your hearers—and that the more proofs you give of any position, the more odd and out-of-the-way they will think your notions.”

In a way, we are all a bit like Whitman: we are untamed, and untranslatable. Usually the most we do is to sound our barbaric yawps over the roofs of the world. Good writing requires we stop our yawping over rooftops and to consider the fact of the other. Good writing is an act of peace, and of friendship.

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“It’s Judges’ Fault” If Legal Writers Mimic Their Jocularity

“You have an informal writing style.” How do you take that? Compliment, or criticism?

This is hard to answer, says legal writing pro Ross Guberman. There is a strong trend in favor of more direct and approachable legal writing—and in this sense, “informal” is a compliment. But there is also a trend among judges—and lawyers following suit—toward the pithy (Twitter-ready), the precious (pop-culture-referencing), and even the biting (Judge VanDyke’s McDougall concurrence).

While there is something to be said (good or bad) about the attention-grabbing lines, Ross explains what really takes skill—and achieves persuasion—is to write as though you were having a conversation.

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Grade Your Legal Writing How BriefCatch Scores Your Briefs

If you write your brief in a straight line, legal writing pro Ross Guberman might give your brief high marks as being Flowing & Cohesive. But if you write like Tocqueville did—as “an act of discovery”—you may need these tips from Ross on how to make your brief more Flowing & Cohesive.

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The “Cleaned Up” Movement in Legal Citations

If you have not seen a case citation with a parenthetical (”cleaned up”) yet, you will eventually. Writers use it when altering—ever so slightly—quotes from legal authorities. Legal writing pro Ross Guberman explains why some attorneys love it, and others hate it.

Ross also addressed my view: that I trust judges to “clean up” quotations, but I don’t know if judges and law clerks would trust us attorneys’ trying our hand at it. Ross is not enthusiastic about double standards in legal writing: if judges adopt a practice, it is too much to expect lawyers not to follow suit.

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“Kill Your Darlings”: Ross Guberman on Rising Above the Fray in Legal Writing

Do quips and “Twitter-ready” lines make for good legal writing? Legal writing pro Ross Guberman says the better approach is “quieter,” less conspicuous writing that “rises above the fray” by being clear, flowing, and concise.

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Ross Guberman on Conversational—Rather Than Tweet-Worthy—Legal Writing

Drawing from his experience training federal judges and top law lawyers how to write more effectively, Ross Guberman shares some of his best writing tips with Jeff Lewis and Tim Kowal on episode 33 of the California Appellate Law Podcast at www.CALPodcast.com.
Ross also gives a tour of his latest product, BriefCatch 3.0 (now available on Mac), a tool that scores legal briefs for engagement, readability, flow, punchiness, and clarity. Not sure how to take your writing from merely proper English to Elena Kagan? BriefCatch provides in-app examples of some of the best passages of Supreme Court justices.

Here are some of the tips Ross covers:

✍️ Why more judges are using pithy, attention-grabbing language—and why you shouldn’t imitate it in your briefs.
✍️ Rising above the fray without resorting to quips.
✍️ Getting the judge’s attention by tapping into three universal fears all judges have.
✍️ Discussing “bad facts” confidently, not defensively.
✍️ Using BriefCatch to improve your briefs.
✍️ Remember the purpose of legal writing is to help judges organize their thoughts—briefs are a tool, but aspire to make them tools that are a pleasure to use.

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About That Cheeky Concurrence by Judge VanDyke

Legal commentators were taken aback by Judge VanDyke’s concurring opinion mocking the 9th Circuit’s inevitable en banc review of the majority opinion—also authored by Judge VanDyke. But Second Amendment litigator Sean Brady explains why he thinks Judge VanDyke will be vindicated in his criticism of the 9th Circuit’s trend of late on Second Amendment cases. And Jeff Lewis and I—while disagreeing on the merits of the gun rights question—also agree that satire and a bit of cheek can be valid tools to bring attention to an important issue that might otherwise be ignored.

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The most frequently committed legal writing mistakes

Attorney Ryan McCarl, author of Elegant Legal Writing, tells Jeff Lewis and me the top three things lawyers do wrong in their briefs:
(1) Legalese (are you really still using legalese?)
(2) Long sentences with no clear structure or emphasis
(3) Failing to mind the “cognitive load” of your reader.

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“Prophet Without Honor”: Sean Brady on Judge VanDyke’s Controversial 2nd Amendment Prediction

“I’m not a prophet,” Judge Lawrence VanDyke wrote in his controversial concurring opinion in McDougall v. County of Ventura. Second Amendment attorney Sean Brady disagrees. Joining Jeff Lewis and me, Sean says Judge VanDyke will be proven correct: the Ninth Circuit in the last several years has granted en banc review of every panel decision favorable to the Second Amendment, and has denied review to every unfavorable decision.

(And a few days after taping, On March 8, 2022 the Ninth Circuit granted en banc review of McDougall.)

Sean explains how the Ninth Circuit, and other circuits, have adopted a line of Second Amendment analysis that follows more closely Justice Breyer’s dissent in D.C. v. Heller than the Supreme Court’s majority. That is why, after writing the opinion for the panel, Judge VanDyke also wrote a concurrence, reaching the same conclusion but using this alternative line of analysis.

But wasn’t Judge VanDyke’s concurrence jarring and off-putting? Perhaps. And it is an unusual style for a judge to resort to. But all of us agreed that Judge VanDyke meant it, quite deliberately, to be at least slightly offensive: an affront to the modern taste for cool and logically seamless forms of persuasion. Judge VanDyke genuinely believes that, however it happened, the train has gone off the tracks, and it will take some shoving and heavy breathing to put it back again.

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Why you should include more white space in your briefs

Legal academic-turned-practitioner Ryan McCarl has some writing tips for lawyers, including one you haven’t heard before: Add more white space to your briefs. And remove clutter generally. And this surprised co-hosts Jeff Lewis and Tim Kowal: those vertical lines on your pleading paper? Get rid of them. They’re unnecessary and they make the reader feel crowded.

(Disclosure: I haven’t mustered the courage yet to remove the vertical lines from my pleading template.)

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