‘It’s all about the brief’

Keep it concise and know your audience: N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Richard Dietz’s writing advice in a virtual presentation to first-year Elon Law students was drawn from his experience as an appellate attorney and six years on the bench.

The Hon. Richard Dietz would be the first to tell you that when you draw a Venn diagram of the best appellate attorneys and the best legal writers, you’d only need one circle. Few of the cases he’s helped decide on the North Carolina Court of Appeals hinged on the oral arguments.

Most are won or lost on the clarity of the printed word.

“Writing is the most important skill for appellate lawyers,” Dietz said in a guest presentation to students completing first-year courses in Elon Law’s Legal Method & Communication program. “Oral arguments are a very small part of appellate law. It’s all about the brief.”

Dietz was appointed in 2014 to the North Carolina Court of Appeals following a career in appellate law that included arguments to the Supreme Court of the United States. Since joining the bench, he has been a part of hundreds of state cases, and his experience with legal writing – both good and bad – shaped his virtual presentation via Webex to all first-year students and Elon Law legal writing faculty.

Among the highlights of Dietz’s remarks on April 27, 2020, hosted by Professor Sue Liemer:

  • Don’t overlook a strong introduction. Some attorneys disregard the opportunity to frame the narrative by which a legal argument is about to be made, Dietz said, and that can be to their detriment if it’s hard for a reader (ahem, the judge) to see where the lawyer is going.
  • Statements of fact don’t always need to be in chronological order. You can foreshadow your argument in a legal brief by emphasizing certain elements of your case, and they don’t necessarily need to adhere to a particular timeline if their order makes sense.
  • Fonts are important. Don’t use Courier, where “rivers of white space” between characters can make it harder to stay focused on copy. Century Schoolbook is a better option. Regardless, be sure you abide by the rules of the court in which you are filing your brief.
  • Save your files as PDFs. Don’t print and then scan your files. If you aren’t sure how to save a file directly from word processing software, ask someone. Printed and scanned legal briefs can be blurry and out of alignment, distracting the reader from your argument.
  • Good writing matters – and that means you need to plan ahead. If a brief is due in 30 days, write it now, then leave it for a week. Return to it for editing with fresh eyes. The best writing happens in the revision process, so when you allocate your time and energy well in advance, you often produce a stronger argument.

For Liemer, who directs Elon Law’s legal writing program, Dietz’s presentation reinforced important lessons for students that will serve them well in the years ahead, first in the classroom and, eventually, in the courtroom.

“Their writing professors can say the same things,” she joked with Dietz following the formal presentation, “but the moment you say it, it becomes real.”