Monday, July 29, 2013

ABA Blawg 100

The ABA Blawg 100 is taking nominations for its list of 100 top law-related blogs.  If you like this blog, please consider nominating it.  The short form is available at

Nominations will be taken through August 9, 2013.

Thanks again to all those who regularly read my posts.  I hope you enjoy them.  As always, if you have a topic you'd like covered, please let me know.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Capital Affair

Even the savviest writers often have trouble figuring out when to capitalize certain types of words.

Seasons—Names of the seasons: fall, winter, spring, and summer should only be capitalized when they are part of a proper name.  For example, 

     Summer Olympics

     Fall Semester 

Otherwise, season names are not capitalized:

     I’ll start studying for the bar exam in the summer.

The Internet—This one is a bit tricky, but according to the Chicago Manual of Style, the term “Internet” is capitalized because it refers to one large network; however, the term “website” is generic and, therefore, is not capitalized.

Earth—When the term “earth” is used to refer to the land itself (i.e. the ground), it is not capitalized.  When the term “Earth” is used to refer to the planet, it should be capitalized.  

            He dug in the earth for buried treasure.   

Views of Earth from space are amazing.

Mother et al.—Terms like “mother,” “father,” “sister,” and others should be capitalized only when used in place of a person’s name.  If the term follows a possessive pronoun like “my” or “your,” the term is not capitalized.  

            The defendant’s mother alerted police to her son’s whereabouts.

     I will await Mother’s call about Susan’s bar exam results.

Federal/state—terms like “federal” and “state” are capitalized when used as part of an official organization name.*  For example,

     The Federal Bureau of Investigation is hiring.

     Many non-citizens do not understand how the federal government operates.

     Businesses must be careful to comply with all federal and state laws.

     The state will be furloughing workers, including judges.

Directions—Directions (e.g. north, south) should be capitalized only when referring to specific regions.  For example,

            The defendant was raised in the South.

     To get to the courthouse, drive south on First Street and turn left at the third light.

Job Titles—Titles should be capitalized when used before a person’s name, but not when used in place of a person’s name.  For example,

            I met President Barack Obama last year.

     The president will address the nation at 9:00 p.m.

     The bill was sponsored by Representative John Smith.

     All representatives from Georgia will attend the meeting.

*There are mixed opinions about capitalization of the word “state” when it refers to a party to litigation.  I think the best practice is to capitalize “State” in these situations.  For example,

     The State argues that sovereign immunity applies to bar the claims. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Here a Dash, There a Dash, Everywhere a Dash Dash

If you can’t tell from my blog posts, I like dashes—and I use them frequently.  Dashes are great tools that can be used in several ways.  Dashes provide a stronger pause than commas and are good to use when you really want to emphasize the material you would normally offset with commas.  Consider the difference between the two sentences below:

Even Justice Scalia, one of the more conservative justices, joined the majority opinion.

Even Justice Scalia—one of the more conservative justices—joined the majority opinion.

Dashes can be used to signal that the writer is shifting tone or to contrast two ideas:

The plaintiff diligently engaged in discovery and turned over all relevant materials—the defendant, on the other hand, delayed and stalled and still has refused to produce the requested documents.

Dashes can also be used like semicolons to join independent clauses:

The defendant should not have been paroled—his psychiatrist testified that he would be a threat to society if released from prison.

Note: When you use a dash in a sentence, use an “em” dash (a dash the width of the letter “m”) by hitting the dash key twice.  A hyphen, on the other hand, should be made with an “en” dash (a dash the width of the letter “n”) by hitting the dash key only once.  Check out the difference between the two in this sentence:
The complaint meets the notice pleading requirements—it is a well-pleaded complaint.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Unintended Consequences

This interesting article is about a new Florida law that serves as a good example of the perils of statutory drafting. 

An internet café is challenging the recently enacted law, which banned internet cafés in an attempt to crack down on internet-based gambling establishments.  The law prohibits “illegal slot machines.”  An “illegal slot machine” includes any “system or network of devices that may be used in a game of chance.”  The new law also creates a rebuttable presumption that a “device, system, or network is a prohibited slot machine or device if it is used to display images of games of chance and is part of a scheme involving any payment or donation of money or its equivalent or awarding anything of value.”

What's the problem, you ask?  The new law appears to be so broad that the term “illegal slot machine” encompasses any computer, smart phone, or other electronic device that could be used to access an internet gambling site.  This almost certainly isn't what the Florida legislature intended, but it looks like that it what it got.    

The article provides a link to the complaint, if you're interested.  You might notice that famed professor Alan Dershowitz is co-counsel for the café.      

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Point Well Made

Ross Guberman’s Point Made is an excellent source for practitioners looking for easy ways to improve their writing.  While Point Made focuses on brief writing, Guberman’s 50 tips can be used in every type of writing, from demand letters to appellate briefs.  

In the book, Guberman offers pointers on organization, style, and sentence structure including: using dashes, semi-colons, and colons to emphasize; interspersing short, pithy sentences with longer ones to add interest (a tip I frequently employ); conceding bad facts to spin them in a way that makes them less harmful; and drafting parallel constructions to streamline information and comparisons.  Many of Guberman’s fabulous pointers can be employed by everyone from novice legal writers to seasoned brief drafters 

My favorite part of Point Made is Guberman’s “real-life” examples, something lacking from many legal writing books aimed at practitioners.  It is easy to give legal writing pointers; it’s harder to show legal writers how to use those pointers to draft impactful briefs.  Guberman does an excellent job of outlining his tips then showing the reader how the tips can be (and have been) used in real briefs. Guberman’s examples are from public and private lawyers; from a variety of cases; from plaintiffs and defendants, so there’s something for everyone in Point Made.

My only criticism is that a few of Guberman’s tips aren’t widely usable or, in my opinion, advisable.  For example, Guberman recommends that writers use rhetorical questions.  I’ve never personally been involved in a case where a party used a rhetorical question in a way that didn’t make the writer seem arrogant.  Admittedly, the examples Guberman offers are very effective.  But, the rhetorical question tip is one, in my opinion, that should only be used by advanced legal writers who can craft a rhetorical question that falls on the right side of the line between clever and pretentious.

Guberman also recommends interspersing “balanced, elegant” long sentences in legal writing to add literature-like richness.  Again, Guberman’s examples are fabulous; again, this tip isn’t widely applicable.  In fairness, Guberman himself admits the tip may be “too much” for some writers and suggests an alternative “freight-train” style that is more practical.   

Overall, Guberman’s book is an excellent source for practitioners looking for “quick and dirty” tips to improve their writing.  The book is easy to follow with a user-friendly format that will enable any lawyer to pick it up and, thirty minutes later, implement Guberman’s tips.  I highly recommend Point Made.