Secrets of the Solicitor’s Style: Ten Takeaways

The briefs from the Office of the Solicitor General are peerless, though not always flawless.

But does the Office have a true “style”? As Administrations change, so do the solicitors, of course. The briefs in the short Kagan era, for example, are more spirited than the ones that her successor has signed. According to Jeffrey Toobin’s The Oath, in fact, when Kagan debuted on the scene, she surprised her deputies by line-editing briefs on even the most mundane matters, but their wariness soon yielded to deep respect for her writing gifts.

That said, the longstanding career lawyers do most of the heavy lifting, and the technical features of the Office’s style have long been set in stone.

Now, for the first time, some of those practices have been laid bare, thanks to a new book edited by Jack Metzler called The Solicitor General’s Style Guide. As Metzler delicately puts it, the manual “implicitly implores the reader to do as it says, not as it does.” But have no fear: I’ve waded through the 88 pages of sludge and have unearthed ten (or is that “10”?—see below) jewels of solicitor-worthy style advice:

1. Numbers Game

Spell out numbers or use digits?

Spell out zero through ten, and use digits for 11 and higher.

2. Money Talks

Currency: words, digits, or symbols?

The verdict: Use “$65 million,” not “$65,000,000” (and not “sixty-five million dollars,” either).

(Freebie tip: Leave off the cents when they are zero. So $25, not $25.00.)

3. Foreign Affairs

Italicize Latin terms?

Italicize true Latin terms like a fortioriinfra, and supra. Also italicize e.g. and i.e.

But no italics for Anglicized (in other words, familiar) Latin terms like certiorari, per se, pro se, and status quo.

4. Article of Faith

“An SEC rule” or “a SEC rule”?

Use articles for abbreviations or acronyms based on how they are customarily pronounced. So “An SEC rule” and “an NAACP fundraiser,” but “a FOIA request.”

5. Fee Schedule

“Attorney’s fees” or “attorneys’ fees”?

Attorney’s fees. So not attorneys’ fees, and thus not attorney fees or attorneys fees, either.

6. “Barbaric”?

“Caselaw” or “case law”?

Case law. The guide even cites a 1987 Charles Fried memo demanding the “total extirpation” of the “barbarism” known as “caselaw.”

7. Hyphen Nation

“Wholly-owned subsidiary” or “wholly owned subsidiary”?

Don’t hyphenate phrasal adjectives when the first word is an adverb ending in –ly. So “doughnut-hole gap” but “wholly owned corporation.”

8. Guilty as Charged

“Pleaded” or “pled”?

Pleaded: “Petitioner pleaded guilty.”

9. Your Honor

“Mr. Smith” and “Mrs. Jones”—or just “Smith” and “Jones”?

Call me Smith. No honorific, unless it’s necessary for clarity (a family, for example). If you do use the honorific for a woman, prefer Ms. to Miss.

10. Capital Crimes

“Section” or “section”? And “Federal law” or “federal law”?

Capitalize Section. But lowercase state and federal when used as adjectives modifying common nouns like law.