Writing a winning brief, in three easy steps

The best way to become a good writer is to read a lot of good writing.  And to me there’s no better legal writing than that of Judge Ruggero Aldisert.

Judge Aldisert just published the third edition of his important and popular book on Opinion Writing (details from the catalog record copied below).  This third edition (listen up, law students) includes a new chapter on law clerk duties, an expanded treatment of trial court opinions, and new chapters on administrative law judges and arbitration procedures and opinions.

But, one might ask, how will a book on opinion writing help me write a winning brief?  The answer is found in what the good judge calls his “chambers mantra” — “writing a good opinion is the best training on how to write a good brief.”

And about those three steps.  Opinion Writing, 3rd edition includes three checklists (these checklists, alone, are worth the price of the book) on opinion writing that can be used in brief writing:

1. Writing it.

2. Testing it.

3. Shortening it.

The book asks:  Why use checklists for writing, testing and shortening an opinion?  The answer:  “Checklists ensure that you touch all the bases on your way to file a ‘home run’ opinion.”  These checklists are gold, pure gold.

Here’s the book’s description from our library catalog:

Opinion writing / Ruggero J. Aldisert.

Author/Creator:
        Aldisert, Ruggero J.

Language:
        English

Imprint:
        3rd ed.
        Durham, N.C. : Carolina Academic Press, c2012.

Bibliography:
        Includes bibliographical references and index.

Contents:
        Writing judicial opinions
        To write or not to write
        Reaching and justifying the decision : a distinction with a difference
        Judicial declaration of public policy
        The outline of your opinion
        Jurisdiction and standards of review
        Orientation paragraph
        Summary of issues
        Statement of facts
        Writing the reasons for the decision.

ISBN:
        9781611631234
        1611631238

Subjects:
        Legal composition.
        Judicial opinions > United States.

At the Library:
        Crown (Law) > Stacks 1
                KF250 .A35 2012
                KF250 .A35 2012
                KF250 .A35 2012

Bookmark: http://searchworks.stanford.edu/catalog/9699810

Yes, we have three copies.  Every law library should have at least that many, and law librarians should encourage their students, especially their students in law school clinics, to read and heed the judge’s insightful tips.

Full disclosure:  I met Judge Aldisert in 2008 when my daughter was serving as one of his law clerks.

Selling Others’ Briefs, Illustrated

To better illustrate some of the points made by Paul in his posting Selling others’ Briefs, Bryan L. Jarrett (our former student and now an associate at Jones Day) has given us permission to post two of the charts he created for his paper “Vending Appellate Briefs.”  (To recap, Bryan’s paper surveyed the practices of sixteen state jurisdictions and DC — the ten largest ABA jurisdictions (by membership size) and seven jurisdictions that did not supply copies of appellate briefs to commercial vendors.  The data was gathered in 2010.)

The first table (“Table I: The Ten Largest Jurisdictions”) displays five questions (for the jurisdictions of NY, CA, TX, FL, IL, DC, MA, OH, PA and NJ): do these jurisdictions provide appellate briefs online; do they have an arrangement with a vendor (Westlaw, Lexis) for the distribution of briefs; do these jurisdictions send appellate briefs directly to vendors; is the exchange of briefs quid pro quo; and have any attorneys objected.

The second table (“Table II: Jurisdictions that Do Not Supply Their Briefs to Vendors”) focuses on seven jurisdictions (NV, NH, NM, OK, VT, UT, and WY) and addresses the same questions as in Table I.

Authentication of Primary Legal Materials and Pricing Options

Always worth reading is Intersect Alert, the one published by the SLA San Francisco Bay Region Chapter (and not to be confused with Chuck Bartowski’s Intersect).

This item about a new California Office of Legislative Counsel white paper is from the most recent issue:

Authentication of Primary Legal Materials and Pricing Options
“The recent passage of the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act (UELMA) has brought to the forefront the issue of costs of authenticating primary legal materials in electronic format. This white paper briefly reviews five methods of electronic authentication. These methods are based on trustworthiness, file types, effort to implement, and volume of electronic documents to be authenticated. Six sample solutions are described and their relative costs are compared. The white paper also frames the legal landscape and background of authentication for primary legal materials in electronic format, and provides context and points to applicable resources. The aim of this collective effort is to promote the understanding of costs related to authentication and invite further discussion on the issue.”

http://www.mnhs.org/preserve/records/legislativerecords/docs_pdfs/CA_Authentication_WhitePaper_Dec2011.pdf

Finding History in a Drawer

In 1875, a jury committed Mary Todd Lincoln to an insane asylum.  This week, the Chicago Tribune reported that two Illinois State Supreme Court justices discovered her trial papers still on file with the Cook County Clerk!  The Clerk’s Office will be donating them to the Lincoln museum, but we hope the story does not end there.  Like many others, we’ve previously posted about the cultural heritage reflected in state court files.  Some of the stories told in these documents are historically significant, like Mary Todd Lincoln’s commitment, or John Wesley Hardin’s murder trial (see this Texas Task Force report).  Many stories, however, are just minor threads in life’s tapestry: divorces, probates, business disputes.  Whether the story is big or small, the court records that tell it may be irreplaceable.

Each state’s preservation rules differ.  Some place the retention determination in the hands of state libraries or archives, some issue mandatory retention schedules based on the nature of the action, and some afford the clerk of court discretion to dispose of files after prescribed time periods.  Even if a clerk of court wanted to save everything, storage expenses and space constraints make this impossible.  The costs of digitizing every paper record are prohibitive.  As cultural institutions may not be interested in less noteworthy files, many are noticed for destruction.  Provided that a state’s rules allow it, however, law libraries may be uniquely positioned to rescue these files — preserving not just the documents, but also state history.  And if you spend some time digging through them all, you never know just what you might find…

The Existential Exercise of Finding State Court Materials Online

Recently, we’ve had the opportunity to explore the online availability of state superior court filings, both through commercial retrieval services (such as Lexis’ CourtLink or Westlaw’s CourtExpress), and the superior courts’ own websites.  Sites like Justia are also incredible resources for obtaining select trial court documents, but our project instead examined more standardized provision of dockets and filings.

Having wrapped up this undertaking, we thought it would be useful to share our reflections.  First, a quick caveat about what this project did not involve. We were not comprehensively indexing document availability in every U.S. county, or even in all fifty states.  Rather, we examined selected states and counties, based mainly on population size.  In addition, though we are aware of various existing studies and compilations documenting the availability of state court records, we wanted to look behind some of these reports.  As we often found, a commercial retrieval service’s representation that the “civil filings are available” did not mean all filings on all matters.  Moreover, in a world of ever-changing court websites and eFiling programs, existing studies unfortunately have a somewhat limited shelf life.

So, with those disclaimers in mind, we are excited to share how floored we were by the disparities in the online provision of state court dockets and pleadings!  Here are a couple of observations:

I.          Commercial Services (e.g. CourtLink and CourtExpress)

  • Sometimes, one can get little for one’s money.  The commercial services’ promotional materials are sometimes misleading if you want to retrieve filings.  For instance, their coverage charts could indicate that dockets from Shawnee County, Kansas are available, but one can’t actually retrieve the dockets online; they are “available” only in the sense that one can make a request online (and pay additional money) to have a runner pull them from the court.
  • Another drawback was the infrequency with which commercial services updated their state trial court dockets.  Even if one clicks a button to manually update a docket, this does nothing if one is attempting to do so within the long stretches between docket captures.  (Commercial services capture docket snapshots only every 45 or 60 days, meaning that even if one tries updating in an intervening period, one really isn’t getting any newly-added information.)
  • We also found that, while commercial services often capture federal dockets and filings from PACER indiscriminately, their state court coverage is extraordinarily selective.  They often choose cases based on subject matter cachet, or the perceived needs of their customers.  If you want documents from a run-of-the-mill breach of contract case, you might be out of luck.
  • Don’t try this at home if you want to conduct empirical analysis!  What isn’t available through commercial services significantly constrains research, but what hinders research even further is the inability to determine what isn’t available. How can one properly evaluate, for example, filings in a given jurisdiction when it is unclear what hasn’t been made available for searching?

II.        Publicly-Available Court Websites

  • A trial court’s offering of documents online is not necessarily a question of whether the court sits in a county wealthy enough to provide them.  For example, the superior court in Cincinnati, OH (sitting in Hamilton County) offers document access online, but San Diego County does not.  And one can view civil dockets from Dallas, TX, but not from Denver, CO.  There seems to be something other than wealth or the political inclinations of the jurisdiction at play.  Perhaps it is a matter of prioritization by the state legislature or judiciary, or maybe even the serendipity of having companies nearby that can get databases up and running.  Certainly, jurisdictions with well-established eFiling programs have a leg up on putting documents online; but, even in jurisdictions with eFiling in place, it is not always the case that dockets—let alone documents—can be retrieved on the Web!
  • The quality of available dockets varies dramatically because state court clerks exercise no uniformity in document description.  It is difficult to compile a collection of complaints if various clerks label documents “pleading” or “misc. filing.”
  • Navigational problems can leave you lost at sea.  We spent a lot of time fumbling our way around some of these sites.  One wonders if it is truly “access” to records if one needs a vacation after trying to find them.

At the end of the day, we found too many gaps in coverage for anything to be considered “consistently” available online.  One first step in measuring the parameters of these disparities would seem to be a county-by-county analysis of which trial courts in which states provide online access to dockets and/or filings—either through commercial services or their public websites.  Surveys like the McCormick Tribune Foundation’s comprehensive 2007 assessment, or the commercial services’ coverage charts, are great first steps—but additional testing is required, particularly to keep such studies current.

UNCTAD E-Regulations Business Facilitation site

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development maintains a useful site for information on starting and registering businesses in developing countries. Information is provided on what documents are needed, approximate time required and estimated costs. Information also provided on authenticating documents, setting up non-profits and purchasing real estate. The countries currently covered are Colombia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Mali, Nicaragua, and Vietnam. 

UNCTAD E-Regulations Business Facilitation site

http://www.businessfacilitation.org/en/country-projects.html

Carl Malamud, Legal Information Liberator, tackles PACER

Today’s New York Times features an article on Carl Malamud’s latest fight to keep the ‘operating system’ of America freely available.  The article, “An Effort to Upgrade a Court Archive System to Free and Easy,” by John Schwartz explains:

“So, using $600,000 in contributions in 2008, he bought a 50-year archive of papers from the federal appellate courts and placed them online. By this year, he was ready to take on the larger database of district courts.   Those courts, with the help of the Government Printing Office, had opened a free trial of Pacer at 17 libraries around the country. Mr. Malamud urged fellow activists to go to those libraries, download as many court documents as they could, and send them to him for republication on the Web, where Google could get to them.”

What happened next?  The free PACER pilot had been suspended and “a Government Printing Office official, Richard G. Davis, told librarians that “the security of the Pacer service was compromised. The F.B.I. is conducting an investigation.”

We’ll keep you posted on what follows…but it will be interesting to see what role librarians play in this fight going forward and how the new administration responds, too.

Legal Links from Argentina

The Argentine Association of Law Librarians (Asociación Civil de Bibliotecarios Jurídicos- ACBJ) has recently posted a useful collection of Argentine legal links. Categories include: national government agencies, provincial governments, blogs, dictionaries, law schools, bar associations, legal guides, law libraries and legal publishers. These links will be useful for academics and practitioners. Muchas gracias to our Argentine colleagues.

ACBJ Legal Links http://www.acbj.org.ar/link.html

The ACBJ annual conference will be held October 9th and 10th in the beautiful resort town of Barilioche. This years’ theme is “The Rights of Minorities in a Knowledge Society.” For more information visit: http://www.acbj.org.ar/eventos.htm

“A Revolution in Online Legal Content”

A Revolution in Online Legal Content

By Ari Kaplan
Legal Tech Newsletter
July 7, 2008

As summer associates struggle to answer obscure research questions over the next couple of months, they may find an answer to their late-night prayers in JD Supra, a free online service that provides access to legal documents including memoranda, briefs and unpublished court decisions.

Going global

According to its associated blog, JDScoop.com, JD Supra also has contributors in China, from Liang Yongwe, a Beijing-based firm specializing in FDI and overseas direct investment; Italy, from Mantova-based Studio legale Tedioli offering bankruptcy guidance; Spain, from Madrid-based Goni y Cajigas Abogados providing M&A advice; South Africa, from DE Professional Consultants, with offices in various countries advising on tax matters; and, various firms in the United Kingdom and Canada.

. . .

“Ultimately, its utility will end up depending on number of contributors and users,” says Mark Kindall of nine-lawyer Schatz Nobel Izard,  based in Hartford, Conn. He highlights that while court decisions are easy to find, briefs with attachments are much more difficult to source. Schatz Nobel has uploaded 79 documents, including pleadings and decisions from courts across the United States