United States: In Praise Of Brevity

We're on vacation. The dog days of Summer are upon us. Time for our annual (okay – monthly) (okay- weekly) substance-less post. Our vacation began just a couple of days ago, yet we already rue its passing. Good times go by in the blink of an eye. We want to get away from the keyboard and back to the beach, so today we aim to keep this blogpost short. And that's the point: short is good.

Short and sweet. Short and memorable. The Drug and Device Law Son, who recently earned a degree in marketing, reminds us that the best ad slogans are short. Just do it. Think. Coke is it. Think different. The same is true with art. It's easier to watch half-hour sitcoms than hour-long dramas. We miss the early Woody Allen movies, which seldom lingered beyond 90 minutes. (We are not completely discounting the possibility that our recent obsession with short-form has something to do with bathroom breaks.). Our high school junior year English teacher told us that the two greatest American novels were Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby. We've read Gatsby seven or eight times. Moby Dick? Once. Shorter is more user-friendly.

In the law, too, short is good. The best bits of legal instruction ever done were the late Irving Younger's lectures on cross-examination and evidence. You can find those lectures on YouTube. Younger announces the first rule of cross-examination by looking down to the ground, gathering his forces, then roaring, "Be brief!" Make no more than three points in your cross. Two is better. One is best of all. More than that, and you're just flopping around. The jury will be bored and/or confused. Then they will punish you.

Think of the closing arguments you've seen in television shows (LA Law, Boston Legal, Goliath) or movies (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Verdict, The Client). They last under five minutes and are utterly compelling. Why don't we see those short, snappy oral arguments in real life? We're afraid of not making all the points we need, and not responding to all our opponent's points. Whenever we walk out of an oral argument, what obsesses us are the arguments we did not make. But maybe we've got it all wrong. Maybe Irving Younger's recommendation of brevity applies to oral arguments just as much as to cross-examinations. (It is amazing that this insight arrives as any sort of surprise to us. When we represented the United States of America in criminal cases, our best oral arguments went something like this: "No doubt your Honor has read the briefs. (Wait for a judicial nod.). Unless your Honor has any questions, the government submits on the papers.").

Shortly before we embarked on our vacation, we attended an oral argument before the Joint Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, If you haven't been to one of these arguments, you need to know they are unlike any other. The cases are huge but the arguments aren't. The Panel typically affords a total of 20 minutes for argument. That's 10 minutes per side – at most. In our case, there were multiple parties on each side, taking a variety of positions as to whether there should be an MDL at all, or who should be included, or where it should be located. Most parties were allocated one or two minutes to argue. One party, which apparently was taking the position that most interested the Panel, got a whopping four minutes.

Here's the revelation: it worked. The arguments were all really good. One could assume the Panel had read the briefs carefully. The questioning by the judges proved as much. So the goal of argument was to update if need be, emphasize one or two crucial points, and, most important of all, answer the judges' questions. Each and every lawyer was able to do that quite well. One plaintiff lawyer even used blow-up boards and effectively melded them into a two-minute argument. Sometimes the judges asked questions that took the speaker beyond the allocated time, but never by much. When it was over, no one felt cheated. It was a rebuke to the long-winded ness that too often prevails in our profession.

Right now we have a case set for trial in front of a judge who imposes mightily compressed time limits. The lawyers all chafe under the trial chess-clock, but there is reason to believe that the more concise the witness examinations are, the more they make an impact with the jury. The judge is probably correct that lawyers ramble on, perfectly oblivious to the law of diminishing returns. Still, we will probably grind our teeth and steam over the poor jury's misfortune in being denied an extra hour or two of our eloquence.

There's another part of our job that could benefit from brevity: writing. Briefs are ironically named. Lately we've been making a point of trying to get our briefs in under ten pages, even if the rules permit 20 or 25. We harbor a suspicion that anything longer taxes judicial patience, and perhaps even convinces the court that if we cannot make the point crisply and clearly, we don't have much of a point. Accordingly, we put a lot of sweat equity in writing a one or two paragraph introduction that should, by itself, win the day for us. Then we will sprinkle the brief with headings and subheadings that make the merits of our position seem ineluctable. The supporting facts and law parked underneath those headings and subheadings should be just enough and no more. Anything that isn't screamingly essential gets dropped to footnotes in the second draft. In the final draft, we will probably then delete almost all the footnotes. The life-cycle of marginal arguments and evidence is short and cruel.

The key is to know when to stop.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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