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Grab Their Attention and Go: The Legal Brief as a Form of Journalism

I was once an ink-stained wretch, a journalist cranking out news stories every day for more than a decade. And more and more, I realize that the skills I learned as a journalist are key to being a good lawyer:

  • writing quickly, clearly, and accurately; 
  • digging through documents for incriminating facts; 
  • asking questions that hone in on the key issues;
  • above all, having no respect for authority.

One of the most important things in journalism is the lead (or the "lede," as some die-hards insist on still calling it). The first sentences in a news story are the top of the pyramid. It's what the whole story is about, and it has to capture the reader's attention from the get-go. John McPhee described the lead as a flashlight shined down a well - you may not see the whole thing, but you see enough to get the depth.

At Cornell Dolan, P.C., we devote particular attention to having what we call good leads in our briefs. Right out of the gate, we want the judge to know what the brief is about, and to do it in a way that is going to capture attention.

To us, this is simply a matter of practicing good law. As legal theorist Karl Llewellyn once put it, you want your judge to hold your brief and think, "Ooh, baby, this is going to be hot!"

For example, here is one of the better leads we had in a brief this year:

In 2011, the Defendants in this case had a problem any dishonest person would love.

If you're a judge, you know you're going to want to finish that. So we appreciate good leads, and we often look for new approaches we can use. 

On that note, let me show you one of the best leads I have ever seen on a news story. It was in the New York Times, but pointed out by Poynter:

"The dateline was TROON, Scotland. Here was the lead:

“It was in.”

Shall we stipulate that this stands as one of the shortest leads in the history of The New York Times? Or any paper? Just three words, three syllables, seven letters in all.

Tom Wolfe once argued that the short sentence carries the force of gospel truth. So I believe the writer: “It was in.” Here’s more:

It was in off the putter. It was in 10 feet from the hole, It was in 5 feet from the hole. It was in as it approached the lip. It was in. Phil Mickelson had never been more sure of anything.

He had prowled this putt, stalked this putt, talked to his caddie about this putt and, just before he settled over it, imagined this putt that would track perfectly toward the cup and give him a place in golf history as the first player to shoot 62 in a major tournament.

It was in. And so Mickelson began to walk forward, as players often do, while his 16-footer on the 18th hole at Royal Troon on Thursday rolled toward the hole. He felt the adrenaline surge. He felt joy and pride and bliss. He felt the glow of sporting immortality wash over him. It was in.

Then it wasn’t.

“I want to cry,” Mickelson said.

So what does focus look like?

— It looks like one thing, not many.

— It looks like all the evidence supports that one thing.

— It looks like that one thing is so important that it is worth repeating.

— At its best, it looks like one very small thing — one putt — that, for whatever reason, carries a disproportionately large meaning."

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a work of art. I can't see using that sort of structure to open a brief, but in a statement of facts, it could be killer. Thank you for the lesson in good writing.

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