I would like to share some of the most common errors I see good attorneys make.
Avoid overchronicling—most dates are unimportant.
There is nothing wrong with stating the facts in chronological order. Your initial outline of the case should list all dates—because you don’t know which events might prove important. But you should know by the time you write up the case for a court.
Too many briefs recite a chronology of facts: “On March 23, 2000, this happened, and then on May 6, 2000, this happened. Then on June 26, 2000, that happened.” This approach confuses readers, because we don’t know what facts are important, and what, if any, dates we should remember.
Using an exact date signals the reader to remember that date—it will be important later. So unless an exact date is important, leave it out. Instead, tell us what the case is about—only the material facts, and why they are important.
Say “in June” rather than “on June 14, 2000,” or worse, “on or about”—another annoying lawyerism. If you have been working on the case for years, you should know when events happened.
2. Parenthetical Numericals
Especially common and irritating is the practice of spelling out numbers and then attaching parenthetical numericals. This is a habit learned when scribes used quill pens to copy documents. It was to prevent fraud, by making it difficult to alter documents. But your word processor will not confuse “five” with “four.”
A brief that states, “There are four (4) plaintiffs and six (6) defendants, all claiming the ten thousand dollars ($10,000). But only three (3) of the four (4) plaintiffs are entitled to recover from one (1) defendant,” is extremely hard to read and looks silly.
Using parenthetical numericals is never advisable. Some lawyers think it’s a “belt and suspenders” approach. But it’s more likely to get you in trouble. If there is an inconsistency between the letters and numbers, which controls? The letters. Which is more likely to be correct? The numbers.
3. Commas and Periods Outside Quotes
Commas and periods go inside quotes. Always. No exceptions. I see it wrong about 30% of the time.
Quotation marks are used incorrectly in so much legal—and non-legal—writing that it’s an epidemic.
In American English, all commas and periods go inside the quotation marks. This is true whether the quotation is a whole sentence or a fragment. In Commonwealth English, the opposite is true. So if you see a Canadian, British, Indian, or New Zealand quotation, the periods and commas follow the same rule as the one below for question marks and exclamation points. But we are in America—you must get it right.
Colons and semicolons go outside the end of a quote, even if the original had a colon or a semicolon in that position.
The only time you have to decide where punctuation goes is when you have a question mark or an exclamation point. These go inside the quote marks if they are part of the quotation, outside if they are not.
4. Detail before Context
Missing from most briefs or motions is context. The reader must know what the case is about before slogging into it. Put a short statement up front. In fewer than 75 words explain the situation, and what you want the court to do about it. Samples are in my book.
Mark Painter has served as a judge on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals for 11 years, after 13 years on the Hamilton County (Cincinnati) Municipal Court. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. Judge Painter is the author of five books, including The Legal Writer: 40 Rules for the Art of Legal Writing (available at Lawyers USA).