Effective Examples Can Give Your Brief Some Pizzazz

People love stories. You told a good story in your Statement of Facts. Now it's time to invent some new stories to include in the Argument section of your brief. We call these stories "examples".

I once consulted on an appeal from a trial judge's ruling that when a law firm goes broke and dissolves, the firm still has a property interest in the potential future legal fees generated by a case the firm was working on - even if the client finds a new firm to continue the litigation.

The draft brief argued that this was unfair to the client, because the old firm's property interest would force the new firm to share its fees with the old firm - which would discourage the new firm from taking the case at all. This would hurt the client.

It was a good brief, arguing the issues in the abstract quite well. But it needed some pizzazz. I told the lawyer who drafted it: "We need to create an example - a little story that might shock the court."

So I came up with this. "Suppose the law firm was in the middle of a trial defending a client from a $100 million claim, and the client had already paid the firm $2 million for trial preparation and several weeks of trial. Then the firm goes broke. Trial is set for two months from now. The client needs to retain another firm to get up to speed in a big hurry - at huge expense. Is it fair to the client to let the broke firm take some of the fees going to the new firm - when this would cause firms with the experience and talent to handle such a big case to decline to take the case? And where does this leave the client? In default on a $100 million claim? Defending at trial against a $100 million claim with inexperienced counsel - or even in pro per?"

Details add drama. I included specific numbers - big, but not unrealistic - to make it more real and scary. It helps even more if the judges might relate personally to your story. If your case involves real property or stocks, write an example about how the principle you are urging might affect the average homeowner or stockholder. Most judges have purchased a home or a few shares of stock at one time or another.

But be careful. Make sure the details of your story could in fact happen in the real world. If the story looks too contrived, it could backfire. The judges might think your position is so extreme that you could not come up with a realistic story. I've seen this happen at oral argument, when the justices snicker at the odd story an attorney invented in the hope of making his point.

And make sure that application of the rule you are urging would in fact lead to a more just ending of your example.

People relate to stories more than to abstract discussions. Give your judges some stories.

by M.A.T. Legal Director Myron Moskovitz