De Novo: A Virginia Appellate Law Blog

De Novo: A Virginia Appellate Law Blog

Jay O’Keeffe practices with Johnson, Rosen & O’Keeffe LLC. in Roanoke, Virginia, where he splits his time between appellate and business litigation. read more

Letters from Camp

Posted in Briefs, Uncategorized, Writing

So we decided to send Jack to sleepover camp this year. You remember Jack, right?

Well, he’ a little older now. This is the first year that he’s eligible for camp, and he’s really been looking forward to it. We’ve been sending him letters every day, and we include the sports section from the local paper so he can keep up with the World Cup.

On Friday, about a week after dropping him off, we received his first letter:

Now, that letter might strike you as a little whiney (with a slight undercurrent of seething rage). Maybe you’re annoyed that I even made you read it in the first place. But you know what? It didn’t bother me when I read it for three reasons.

First, I know Jack pretty well, so I was prepared for something like this. He is, shall we say, an enthusiastic rule follower. When we watch soccer games, Jack doesn’t cheer for a team. He cheers for the referee.

Second, I love Jack unconditionally. So there’s that.

Third, I read and write legal briefs for a living. I’m used to bellyaching. Jack’s letter is maybe the third bitchiest thing I’ve read this week. Maybe.

Which raises the question: Is complaining effective advocacy? Probably not; your judges certainly don’t think of you like I think of Jack, and even he’s not making many friends in this post. (Which is more than a little unfair to him. Jack is a cool little guy.)

I’m not alone in this opinion. Ross Guberman surveyed a bunch of judges, and they gave him a list of terms that annoyed them:

  1. disingenuous
  2. clearly wrong
  3. baseless
  4. specious
  5. without merit
  6. frivolous
  7. unfortunately for [the other side]
  8. sanctionable

Get the little man a thesaurus, and some of these show up in Jack’s letter.

Although I will admit I was surprised to see “without merit” on the list–it strikes me as pretty anodyne. A quick Lexis search said that the (very civil) Supreme Court of Virginia has used the phrase “without merit” in 1,465 opinions, and “disingenuous” in 19. When I asked Ross about this, he suggested that the objection has less to do with tone, and more to do with tedium.

That’s fair. The phrase can get old. Imagine if your life was spent reading that things lack merit 20 times a day.

As a service to the judiciary, then, here are some other ways to say “without merit;”

  • wrong
  • mistaken
  • incorrect
  • inaccurate
  • not so
  • nope
  • unlikely
  • implausible
  • off-target
  • off-base
  • faulty
  • flawed
  • illogical
  • non sequitur
  • imprecise
  • fallacious
  • argle-bargle
  • balderdash
  • horsefeathers
  • a bit of a stretch
  • wide of the mark

And, of course, the classic:



Legal Technology Update from VTLA Annual Convention

Posted in Uncategorized

I was lucky enough to spend the weekend in lovely Williamsburg, Virginia, home to this year’s VTLA annual convention. The highlights of the convention included (1) Justice Mims’s interview of Anne Marie Slaughter, (2) Anne Marie Slaughter’s brother‘s interview of Chief Justice Lemons, and (3) Kenneth Polite‘s talk on the power of the legal profession. All were full of moments poignant and profound.

Are we going to share any of them?

You know that we are not.

Let’s consider instead an anecdote that the Chief Justice shared. In the course of explaining that the Court used videoconferencing to connect justices who are dispersed across the state, he noted that he once had to deal with a justice who refused to use email. The Chief reported that he won that battle. Being a gracious sort, when he received the other justice’s first email, he called to congratulate him.

The justice was taken aback: “Oh my God–it got there that fast?”

Indeed it did, the Chief assured him.

“You must have one of these things on your end?”


“Does yours have a cupholder?”

This one threw the Chief Justice.

The other justice continued: “It’s just like my Lexus. You push a button and it slides out. I had to use the big coffee cup, though, because the small one doesn’t fit.”

And then it dawned on the Chief. “XXXXXX, please tell me that you’re not using the DVD drive as a cupholder.”

“Oh, is that what that’s for?”

We are in good hands.

Writing with Style(s)

Posted in Briefs

True story: Last year, I had to spend one of the warm-weather Monday holidays working on a brief that was due the following Tuesday. (I can’t remember if it was Memorial or Labor Day, but that doesn’t matter to the story.)

I spent the weekend revising and polishing the brief.

Then I remembered about the Table of Contents and Table of Authorities.

In our office, the tables traditionally presented a labor-intensive slog. My assistant would scroll through the brief on her first monitor, cutting-and-pasting headings and citations into a separate document on her second monitor. The human error inherent in that process, coupled with my penchant for last-minute revisions, made this quite an ordeal.

But this time, I had no assistant. She was out of the office until Tuesday, like any sane person on a holiday weekend.  And I didn’t have the time to manually prepare the tables myself. Things were looking dire, There was really only one thing to do:

I drafted/begged/pleaded with/cajoled Carrie to come in on Labor Day to handle the tables while I finalized the rest of the brief.*

So without getting into the details, let’s just say spousal secretarial labor under deadline on a holiday weekend is not a recipe for domestic bliss. It is, in fact, a bad idea. A bad, bad idea that must never be repeated. (Although Carrie did do a great job with the tables).

By now, tech-savvy readers are either yelling at their screens or they have checked out entirely.

That’s because Word will do all of this for you. Joe Rainsbury patiently explained this to me over lunch, while trying not to laugh. If you draft your brief using Styles:

  1. You can easily make global formatting changes;
  2. Word will automatically generate an outline of your document to facilitate navigation;
  3. Word will automatically generate a Table of Contents;
  4. With a little bit of effort, Word will generate a Table of Authorities;
  5. You can design a cover that looks better than the one your printer uses; and
  6. You can save your document as a template to streamline future projects.

I’m sure that there are other benefits as well, but these were the most obvious to me. (And, again, I know that none of this is new. At least half of you know this already. But it’s a hugely powerful tool, and I suspect that there are Word users out there every bit as ignorant as I am.)

Is it hard to learn how to use Styles? No, it is not. Deborah Savadra has put together an amazing tutorial at Lawyerist. (See screenshot above.) It’s brilliant. Even I could follow it. It’s probably going to be assigned reading for our Federal Litigation class this spring. Technologically inept as I am, there were only two points in the whole piece where I could have used a little clarification:

  • When you are marking citations for your Table of Authorities, the long citation is the one that appears in the automatically generated table; and
  • After the new updates to Word 2016, to create a template you “Save a Copy” as a .dotx file.

But that’s it. The piece if remarkably well done.

If you are new to Styles, you can just follow along with Savadra’s tutorial the next time you write a brief. If I can do this, you can do this. And you should; it will make your life easier. Heck, it may even save your marriage.


*Or Memorial Day? Whatever.

I Wrote a Thing

Posted in Uncategorized

Always keep your Law Hammer handy when writing words.

Hard as it may be to believe, I was actually writing stuff during the downtime between posts. People who ought to know better were kind enough to publish two of my articles:

You can read them if you’re bored.

United States v. Carthorne: The Standard of Review (and Good Lawyering) Decide Cases

Posted in Opinions and Analysis, Standards of Review

This is how we’re drawing a standard of review today.

United States v. Carthorne is one of my favorite recent opinions. It turns on whether the standard for showing plain error is the same as the standard for proving ineffective assistance of counsel. That’s a perfectly nerdly and compelling question in its own right, but it’s not why I like the opinion. Carthorne is a winner for me for two reasons. First, it shows that brilliant lawyering on appeal can (sometimes) redeem dreadful lawyering in the trial court. And second, it reinforces one of our favorite mantras around here: the standard of review decides cases.

Here’s the story: Our hero, Jolon Carthorne, pleaded guilty to illegally possessing drugs and a firearm. His probation officer recommended that he be designated a “career offender” under the Sentencing Guidelines based on two prior convictions. One of those convictions was for assault and battery of a police officer under Virginia law. The probation officer concluded that this qualified as a crime of violence under the Sentencing Guidelines.

Carthone’s trial lawyer did not object to the career-offender designation. The district court sentenced Carthorne to 300 months’ imprisonment. Without the career-offender designation, his Sentencing Guidelines range would have been between 181 and 211 months’ imprisonment.

In other words, the career-offender designation cost Carthorne an additional seven-to-ten-years’ imprisonment

Carthorne appealed, arguing that assault and batter of a police officer was not, in fact, a crime of violence under the Sentencing Guidelines. The Fourth Circuit reviewed his claim for plain error because Carthorne hadn’t raised the argument below. It held that Carthorne was right: Assault and battery of a police officer doesn’t qualify as a crime of violence under the Sentencing Guidelines. But it also held that the district court did not plainly err because existing precedent didn’t compel that conclusion. At the time of the district court’s opinion, the circuits were actually split on the question. So the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment.

That’s the force–and the subtlety–of plain-error review: The district court was wrong, but it wasn’t plainly wrong.

Carthorne then asked the district court to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 for ineffective assistance of counsel because his trial lawyer hadn’t objected to the career-offender designation. The magistrate judge concluded that Carthorne’s lawyer was sufficiently effective “essentially for the same reasons that the Fourth Circuit found no plain (i.e., obvious) error on direct appeal.”  The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation and denied the motion.

Carthorne appealed, arguing that the district court had confused two distinct standards of review. The Fourth Circuit agreed, concluding that “the plain error and ineffective assistance of counsel standards do not necessarily generate identical outcomes with respect to the same alleged error.”

A few points here. First, the Fourth Circuit gives us a nice treatment of plain-error review:

If counsel fails to raise a contemporaneous objection to a potential issue or error, the authority of an appellate court to remedy that problem is “strictly circumscribed.” Puckett, 556 U.S. at 134. A litigant failing to object to an error generally forfeits his claim to relief on account of that error. Id. at 134–35. Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b) recognizes only a limited exception to this rule of forfeiture, allowing appellate courts to review “a plain error that affects substantial rights.” See also Puckett, 556 U.S. at 135; United States v. Dominguez Benitez, 542 U.S. 74, 83 n.9 (2004) (noting plain error relief is “difficult to get, as it should be”). The plain error standard therefore reflects the view that the primary responsibility for protecting a defendant’s interests at trial lies with his attorney, not with the court.

An error can be “plain” only on the basis of settled law. See Carthorne I, 726 F.3d at 516 & n.14 (noting that error is plain “if the settled law of the Supreme Court or this circuit establishes that an error has occurred” or if other circuits are unanimous on the point (citation omitted)). When neither the Supreme Court nor this Court has addressed a legal issue directly and a circuit split exists, “a district court does not commit plain error by following the reasoning of another circuit.” United States v. Strieper, 666 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2012); Carthorne I, 726 F.3d at 516–17 (holding that the absence of binding precedent in conjunction with disagreement among circuits prevented us from finding plain error). Moreover, the determination whether an error is plain is made at the time of review by an appellate court, not at the time that the error is committed. Henderson v. United States, 568 U.S. 266, 279 (2013).

Second, the court’s refusal to hyphenate phrasal adjectives would never fly on #appellatetwitter. Never.

Third, this case is really making me question my Rule Against Acronyms. Lord, am I getting tired of typing “ineffective assistance of counsel” and “assault and battery of a police officer.”

But I digress.

The Carthone court contrasted plain-error review with a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, which requires a showing that counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. While both standards require a showing of prejudice, their specific inquiries diverge. Among other things, plain-error review requires settled precedent before a defendant is granted relief, while the ineffective-assistance standard may demand that a lawyer raise material issues even without decisive precedent. The inquiries also differ in their chronological focus: Ineffective assistance is judged in light of the time of the allegedly deficient performance, while plain error applies authority existing at the time of appellate review.

After distinguishing the two standards, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Carthorne’s trial counsel was indeed ineffective. Eliding the gory details, it held that “counsel’s failure to demonstrate a grasp of the relevant legal standards, to conduct basic legal research relating to those standards, and to object to the sentencing enhancement (even though there was a strong basis for objection), taken collectively, constituted deficient performance.” It vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded for resentencing. That is a fantastic result.

Fun footnote: Carthone’s lawyer on appeal was one Katherine Mims Crocker. Longtime readers will wonder: Might this be the person who gave Justice Mims his famous nickname? Further research is needed. Ms. Crocker had help on brief from Ben Hatch, pipeline defender and gentleman of Harvard. Click on the links to their bios sometime when you want to feel bad about your life choices.

VLW Drops the Ball on 10 Steps for Oral Argument Prep

Posted in Oral Argument

Have you seen this week’s Virginia Lawyer’s WeeklyFirst page, above the fold, is an article called “10 Steps for Preparing for an Appellate Argument” by Dawn Solowey, a tall-building lawyer from Boston. As longtime readers know that I’m a sucker for these articles.

Unfortunately, this one is an exception. It’s bad–preposterously bad, really, given the subject matter. And “bad” is a charitable description. We’re talking New York Jets bad. The Dark Tower trailer bad. Season 4 Sandsnakes bad.

It is, in short, the Jurgen Klinsmann of the appellate-advice genre.

Let’s start by unpacking the list. Here are the 10 steps:

  1. Review the briefs for what’s in them–and what’s not.
  2. Research the panel.
  3. Read your judges’ other opinions.
  4. Update your research.
  5. Read the key cases and have them at your fingertips.
  6. Prepare a longer-form outline.
  7. Prepare a list of “must-make” points.
  8. Anticipate the hardest questions.
  9. Get to know your clerk.
  10. Put yourself in the judges’ shoes.

The article elaborates on each point, but not in the depth that you’d expect.

First observation: This list leaves out moot courts and argument blocks, which are literally the two most helpful things that you can do to prepare for an oral argument. (The discussion of Step 8 does close with “Consider holding a ‘moot court’ with colleagues to practice answering difficult questions on your feet.” That’s not good enough. Yes, by all means, if you would like to win, consider mooting your argument. And you don’t do it get time on your feet. It’s a little late for that. You hold a moot court to get different perspectives, hear different questions, and sharpen your answers.)

Of those steps actually included on the list, Step 10: Put yourself in the judges’ shoes is the most important. The whole point of oral argument is to help the judges get to the correct result, and to do that you have to see things from their perspective. Everything else flows from this. It’s such a crucial part of the process that it’s worth starting your prep by sitting down a making a list called “Things That Will Bother a Judge About This Case.” How on earth is this Step 10?

Step 1: Review the briefs for what’s in them–and what’s not. Meh. I agree that it’s useful to study the briefs and to critically assess each side’s strengths and weaknesses. I disagree that you should “[t]ake detailed notes as you review the briefs, and use them to develop themes and an outline for oral argument.” Relying too heavily on your brief is a mistake. A brief is a written position statement. An oral argument is a conversation with some thoughtful men and women in robes. Though the two exercises share the same goal, they are necessarily and fundamentally different in terms of structure, emphasis, and even sometimes theme.

Steps 2 and 3 almost boil down to internet-stalking your panel and tailoring your presentation to them. That’s exactly why the Fourth Circuit doesn’t announce its panels before the day of argument. The Supreme Court of Virginia doesn’t tell you who will be on your writ panel before he day of argument, either. So from the outset, this is deeply weird advice to be giving Virginia practitioners. But even if these two steps were actionable in real life, I’m still not sure that they would be good idesa. Instead of trying to game the panel, aren’t you better off having a big-picture view of the judges and focusing your argument on the substance?  I know that I’m happier going into an argument knowing my case and finding out on the day that my panel is made up of “Talky Originalist,” “Quiet Normalguy,” and “Funny Lady Murder Question,” for example, than being able to tell you in advance that, say, both Clinton and Bush appointed Chief Judge Gregory, who will be on my panel, or that panelist Chief Justice Lemons once spoke to Mick Jagger on the phone. (Okay, I lied. That last one makes me really happy. But you get the point.)

Also, trying to pitch your argument to the panel can backfire. Solowey recommends considering “whether there is language or a theme from a prior opinion of one or more of the judges that might make sense to highlight at argument.” But if that language or theme wasn’t highlighted until now and you’re using it primarily (or exclusively?) because of who wrote it, this could come off as gross pandering.

Step 4: Update your research. Well, yeah. You should update your research.  If you need someone to tell you that, maybe appeals aren’t going to be your thing.

Step 5: Read the key cases and have them at your fingertips. Ditto. 

Step 6: Prepare a longer form outline. I mean, I guess? Can’t hurt, might help. Oh, wait–it can hurt, because the last thing in the world that you want to do is to read an outline, even to a cold bench. So maybe Step 6 is not the absolute best use of your time.

Step 7: Prepare a list of must-make points. Absolutely. This should be a bit higher up the list, no? And wouldn’t these points be an order of magnitude or two more useful if they were arranged as argument blocks–with case/JA cites and snippets of key language from them? And wouldn’t it be even more helpful if we devoted one page to the affirmative points that you need to make and another to your counters to the Bad Guy’s best points, so you could see both at once in a helpful graphical layout?

Or, you know, you could make a list.

Step 8: Anticipate the hardest questions. Or anticipate all of the questions that you’re likely to face, and work on some razor-sharp answers to them that work back to one or more of your main themes. This, again, is part of the utility of a moot court.

Step 9: Get to know your clerk. No. Wrong. This is not a step in oral argument prep.

Worse, consider some of the pressing questions that Solowey suggests that you pose to the clerk: “How long will each side have for argument? If you are the appellant, can you reserve rebuttal time?” If you don’t know the answers to these and similar questions, you really ought to consider associating competent local appellate counsel.

This list is just depressing. Here are some better ideas about preparing for oral argument. Perhaps one day I will summon the energy to present them in listicle form.




SCV Updates List of Acceptable Fonts!

Posted in Uncategorized

How could I have missed this?! On December 15, the Supreme Court of Virginia revised Rule 5:6 to update its list of acceptable fonts. (H/t Steve Emmert.)

Until now, SCV briefs had to be printed in 14-point Arial, Courier, or Verdana. I’m on record as expressing mild disapprobation for that list. The new list is vastly improved. I’ve reproduced it below. I’ve also added some information from Matthew Butterick’s excellent Typography for Lawyers–second edition, you should buy it now–in which he assigns the system fonts to various lists:

  • A List = generally tolerable
  • B List = OK in limited doses
  • C List = questionable
  • F List = fatal to your credibility

Butterick also indicates whether each font presents a plausible choice for body text, or is better reserved for letterhead or other special projects. Bear in mind that Butterick is a Harvard-trained fontologist, so he is probably much harsher on system fonts than your typical audience will be.

Thus we have the list of SCV-approved fonts, with the Butterick Grade and Body-Text Rating for each:


The next obvious question is which font to use. Brother Emmert tells us that Times New Roman is the densest of the lot and will let you cram the most words into 35 or 50 pages. That’s maybe not what the Court was going for when it amended Rule 5:6. Emmert himself is vacillating between Cambria and Constantia. Butterick may frown on those choices, but I think that Steve can pull them off. One of his secrets is writing very short, very carefully mapped out briefs. If your brief makes a compelling argument in 1/4 of your allotted pages, you get to take some liberties with the font.

As for me, I tend to be wordier than Steve. I need all the help that I can get when it comes to preserving my readers’ attention, so I’m looking at Palatino Linotype and Century Schoolbook as my go-to choices. But those are preferred choices, not defaults. I view typography as just another tool to accomplish my goals in a brief, and those goals vary by project. One font is not going to be the best choice for every brief. For example, Century Schoolbook looks like, well, a schoolbook. Like the sort of thing that an elementary-school teacher would have read to you about the escapades of Dick and Jane and Spot. It also looks like a Restatement. So if I’m writing a brief in opposition, and I want to tell the Court that the law is settled and needs no further development, and that it clearly and authoritatively mandates the result below, then I will choose Century Schoolbook. I will cite many authorities, and I will try to rein in my worst and most distracting tics as a writer–like my overuse of em-dashes and shrieking italics. As a result, my brief will look (and hopefully feel) like black-letter law.

On the other hand, if I have a novel issue or a sympathetic plaintiff, or if for some other reason I want my brief to feel like a story, then I may choose Palatino Linotype–because, to me, than font feels like a story. [I wish I knew how to quit you, em-dash!] Palatino looks like something I might read on iBooks.

To be clear, this is not [tic] a concession that every time I use Palatino Linotype, I’ve given up on the legal argument. It’s just an observation that using the font can help create a different overall feel. Some lawyers, for example, are very good at telling the story behind an overall statutory scheme, or the development of an area of law. Paul Clement and Stuart Raphael come to mind. Of the fonts listed, Palatino Linotype would probably be the most useful for that type of project.

And I won’t tell you what 14-point Arial and Verdana look like.


Appellate Clams

Posted in Writing

 Lately, I’ve been binge listening to Scriptnotes, a podcast by John August and Craig Mazin about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters(TM). I’m not a screenwriter myself and, as it turns out, I’m not interested in many of the things that are interesting to screenwriters. (In my defense, that is a very limited and borderline solipsistic category of things.)

Even so, I think that the podcast is brilliant and I can’t get enough of it. That’s because August and Mazin are two very smart, very professional guys who have spent a LOT of time thinking critically about writing. And even when their insights don’t apply directly to legal writing–which is to say, all of the time–I find that they’re still worth considering, because they often model new (or at least fun) ways to approach the subject.

Take their recent discussion of clams. To screenwriters, “clam” is a term of art. August defines “clams” as “jokes that aren’t funny anymore and therefore need to die.” Mazin explains that if you sat down in Starbucks and heard the folks at the next table using these jokes, you would quickly conclude that they were the worst people on earth.

Clams are, in short, the sort of jokes that you can reliably find on this blog.

To give you a sense of the flavor, here are some of the clams that August and Mazin discussed:

  • ___________ on steroids/crack.
  • Let’s not and say we did.
  • I just threw up in my mouth.
  • Check, please!
  • Good talk.
  • Well played.
  • Spoiler alert!
  • Squad goals! [I honestly don’t know what this means–I don’t belong to a squadron–but I see it on Facebook often enough to recognize that it’s meant to be funny.]
  • I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.
  • I can’t unsee that!
  • Why are we whispering?

As the Scripnotes guys suggest, if I were to try to write a sitcom, I’d probably throw a lot of these in. They would sound like sitcom dialogue, because they’ve been used that way a humongous number of times. And of course, that’s exactly why you would not want to use them in your own writing. And thus I would fail as a screenwriter.

Are there clams in appellate writing–that is, cliches that are so overused that by now they just sound like legal writing and therefore must be destroyed? I think so! Let’s try to list some (h/t to Ross Guberman and, as always, Scalia and Garner):

  • Assuming arguendo
  • Anything else in Latin
  • The instant case
  • This Honorable Court
  • Such (used as a demonstrative pronoun)
  • and its progeny
  • Viable claim
  • Fatally flawed/defective
  • ________ would have you believe
  • Carve out an exception
  • Claw back
  • Inextricably intertwined
  • Conclusory allegation
  • Bald assertion
  • Second bite at the apple
  • So too, here.

I’m sure there are others. Thoughts?

A Key Document is Missing from the Record–Now What?!

Posted in Uncategorized

It’s not an unusual situation: The appellate lawyer realizes late in the game that a key document–a crucial exhibit, maybe, or a necessary transcript–is missing from the record. The document is supposed to be in the record. Everyone assumed that it was in the record. But when the lawyer double-checked the table of contents to the record, she noticed that it wasn’t there. And let’s make things even worse: we’re late in the game, and the record has already gone off to Richmond.

This is the part of the story where people start to panic. It’s a natural reaction, but one that’s completely unnecessary. This is a fixable situation, and one that is more common than you think. Here’s  how to handle it in 5 easy steps:

  1. Remember to breathe.
  2. Make sure that the document is actually missing. It never hurts to double-check, and it’s relatively painless. Maybe you just breezed over the missing document.
  3. Call the Clerk’s office. Seriously. Before getting into any of the legal stuff, just try calling the office of Clerk of the Supreme Court of Virginia. It’s not unusual for a document to fail to make the trip to Richmond, and the Clerk’s office can often sort the whole thing out with a call to the clerk of the trial court.
  4. If that doesn’t work, prepare a petition for a writ of certiorari. Code Section 8.01-673(A) provides that “[t]he Supreme Court may . . . after reasonable notice to counsel in the appellate court, award a writ of certiorari to the clerk of the court below, and have brought before it, when part of a record is omitted, the whole or any part of such record.” Godfrey v. Commonwealth, 227 Va. 460, 465 (1984), and Washington v. Commonwealth, 216 Va. 185, 189 (1975), are also helpful. Rule 5:10 is pretty clear about what’ supposed to be part of the record; it’s usually pretty obvious when one of these items has been omitted as the result of a clerical error or oversight, and in my experience, opposing counsel is usually pretty reasonable about consenting to a petition to have them put back in. (In the unlikely event that opposing counsel disputes that, for example, a filed transcript or a rejected exhibit is part of the record, Rule 5:10(b) commits the dispute to the trial court in the first instance.) Just combine those authorities with a short, clear explanation of what happened. Aim for a 3-5 page document, and be sure to comply with Rule 5:4’s requirements for motions practice.
  5. Relax.


Yes, You Can Start a Sentence with “And” or “But”

Posted in Uncategorized

As longtime readers have no doubt picked up, I’ve got sort of a distinctive writing style for legal writing. If I had to characterize it, I’d say that it falls somewhere between “prickly” and “shrill.” Short sentences are crucial to this style, such as it is, both because they keep the pace moving and because I am unable to keep big ideas in my head for very long. Shrieking italics also help me to get my important points across.

It’s not easy to write these short, overheated sentences. I often have to start with a coordinating conjunction like “but,” “and,” or “so.”

This almost never poses a problem. But from time to time–and especially when I am coordinating with trial counsel–I’ll get comments back on a draft that seek to reword every one of these sentences. I push back gently, but usually wind up accepting the revisions–partly because the customer is always right, partly because I’m a pushover, and partly because I can’t really justify billing a client for debates over grammar.

In the course of these discussions, I’ve learned that a startling number of lawyers are convinced to a moral certainty that you can’t begin a sentence with “but” or “and.”

Applesauce. There’s no such rule.

Grammar Girl covers this issue thoroughly. Unfortunately, citing a Grammar Girl podcast doesn’t pack quite the persuasive weight that it  should, at least in highfalutin’ debates among educated professionals. So I’ve gone up a level: I purchased a copy of the 1965 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Why the 1965 edition? I really don’t know. I once heard (or read?) Bryan Garner insist on the Second Edition above all others as the definitive guide to English as she is spoke. Used copies are readily available on Amazon. I got mine for about $3.00. On Stephen King’s recommendation, I also picked up Warriner’s English Composition and Grammar for a similar price.

But I digress. Here is what the wise and wonderful H.W. Fowler has to tell us from beyond the grave about starting a sentence with “and”:

And beginning a sentence. That it is a solecism to begin a sentence with and is a faintly lingering SUPERSTITION. The OED gives examples ranging from the 10th to the 19th c.; the Bible is full of them.

(A “solecism” is “a mistake in speech or writing.” Yes, I had to look that up.) The superstition may have been “faintly lingering” fifty years ago, but lawyers are clinging to it like that extra space after a period and the uber-weird multiple indent at the start of a paragraph.

If Fowler’s not good enough for you, Grammar Girl pulled this zinger from the Chicago Manual of Style:

There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.

Still not convinced? In The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, our man Bryan Garner says:

When appropriate, use a coordinating conjunction to begin a sentence to emphasize contrast (but, yet), additional support for a proposition (and), an alternative (or), or a logical conclusion (so).

Finally, in Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates, Ross Guberman devotes a whole chapter to the one-syllable opener. He offers examples of sentences starting with “but” and “and” from the likes of John Roberts, Miguel Estrada, and Elena Kagan.

So there you have it: ample authority to justify your next punchy sentence.